When Screen Gems released Vacancy in 2007, horror was in somewhat of a transition. The ‘Torture Porn’ subgenre was breathing its last gasp. Hostel II underperformed, Saw IV marked that franchise’s downward slide, and new entries like Captivity and I Know Who Killed Me were failures. Yet this was also the same year that saw the start of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Trick R’Treat, REC, The Mist, Inside, and 1408 also haunted theatres that year. Amidst these horror movies, Vacancy came and went, performing well enough to earn a direct-to-video prequel.
On the brink of divorce, David and Amy’s late-night shortcut leads them to a remote motel. When their car breaks down and they can’t get a cell phone signal, the couple has no choice but to spend the night. But dirty sheets and no cable is the least of their problems. David finds handful of VHS tapes showing that initially appears to be disturbingly violent movies. Then David recognizes the setting of the movies – their motel room. With surveillance cameras hidden all around them and masked men waiting outside, David and Amy are trapped and forced to fight for survival.
Vacancy Offers Some Restrained Thrills With Unique Premise
At face value, Vacancy sounds like a late-entry ‘Torture Porn’ movie. But from its opening credits sequence and motel-setting, Nimrod Antal’s thriller calls back more to Hitchcock than Eli Roth. For much of its runtime, Vacancy plays out like an old-school thriller. Writer Mark L Smith’s screenplay makes the rare effort to familiarize the audience with his characters’ disintegrating marriage. Similarly, Antal methodically cranks up the danger. Not unlike the similarly-themed, The Strangers, Vacancy purposefully introduces warning signs and threats before unleashing the movie’s full siege. Despite suffering a bit from familiarity in the set-up, Vacancy offers enough restrained thrill at a quick pace to draw you in for the full ride.
Vacancy Goes Off Course In Its Final Act
With Vacancy clocking in at just under 90 minutes, it’s a tightly packed thriller that, at the very least, never overstays its welcome. But by the time the credits roll, one can’t help but feel a little disappointed. Antal and Vacancy tease a gripping, disturbing thriller early on. Specifically, David’s discovery of the ‘snuff tapes – which marketing for the movie prominently featured – is genuinely unnerving. It’s a scene that wisely trades on a ‘less is more’ approach. There’s certainly some grisly imagery, but Antal never lingers on it. What’s promised in these scenes is an intense ‘life-or-death’ struggle.
Missing the gore of its counterparts and The Strangers’ nihilistic ending, Vacancy almost feels bland by its conclusion.
Yet it in spite of its early promise, Vacancy quickly settles in genre conventions in its final act. Whereas The Strangers maintained its eerie atmosphere atmosphere and pacing from start to finish, Vacancy lets go of its earlier restraint. Along with a few lazy genre tropes, like the inept police officer serving up a body count, Vacancy gets loud and messy. But Antal doesn’t even fully commit to letting things go fully off the rails. Missing the gore of its counterparts and The Strangers’ nihilistic ending, Vacancy almost feels bland by its conclusion.
Vacancy Suffers From Miscasting and Compelling Villains
Don’t get me wrong. Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale are both great actors. Nevertheless, Vacancy miscasts both performers in their roles. Maybe Wilson thought he would take a page from brother Owen’s early career (Anaconda, The Haunting), and give horror a try. But Luke Wilson just doesn’t seem right as passive-aggressive David – Wilson’s talents seems better-suited for comedic roles. After watching Beckinsale kick ass in the Underworld series, the damsel-in-distress role feels like a major step down for the actress.
After watching Beckinsale kick ass in the Underworld series, the damsel-in-distress role feels like a major step down for the actress.
Contrary to The Strangers, Vacancy also lacks convincing villains. Character actor Frank Whalley (The Shed) is always reliable. And he brings the right amount of sleaze for his character. Yet Whalley is never menacing in his role. That is, he makes the perfect sniveling background bad guy, but not an imposing major villain. Unfortunately, the masked killers that round out the cast are unremarkable. Even with a good performer like Ethan Embry (The Devil’s Candy, Late Phases) behind one of the masks. Without any discernible personalities, the villains feel interchangeable. The Strangers’ killers were memorable enough to drive calls for a sequel for over a decade. Conversely, you’ll be hard-pressed to remember Vacancy’s masked madmen.
Vacancy Settles For Watchable B-Movie Fare
Despite a promising premise riffing on an enduring urban legend, Vacancy settles for being a watchable B-movie. To its credit, the movie is short, tightly paced, and invests enough emotion into its characters to care. Moreover, director Nimrod Antal’s early restraint and build-up create enough suspense to hook you in for the duration of the movie. In the end, Vacancy is the sort of movie you’d wouldn’t turn off if it happened to be on television, but you’d be unlikely to seek it out.
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