Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Nimród Antal

Cast: Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry

MPAA Rating:   (for brutal violence and terror, brief nudity and language)

Running Time: 1:22

Release Date: 4/20/07

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Review by Mark Dujsik

When it comes to thrillers, sometimes less is more, and Vacancy is further proof of that. The plot doesn't have an A to B succession. It stays at point A, and the only progression is the degree of danger in which the main characters find themselves. With its simple, no-frills setup (someone I was with recommended the movie's title should be Couple Runs around Hotel) and very short running time (a little over 80 minutes), Vacancy is nothing more than an excuse for an hour-long, nonstop thrill ride. That the thrills are genuine and executed with a sure hand is what makes the film work; that the characters are sympathetic makes it work better than it should. This is the first English-language feature of director Nimród Antal (get the chuckles out of the way now, because once the film ends, you'll want to remember the name for other reasons), and his perception of the things that get under the skin is so dead-on, he's bound to make a name in horror films if he so chooses. Yes, this is a horror film, but one that understands that the sign of a good one is not the amount of blood that's spilt.

David Fox (Luke Wilson) is driving down a dark county road as his wife Amy (Kate Beckinsale) sleeps in the passenger seat. He comes across a raccoon in the middle of the road, swerves to miss it, and soon, after some bickering about minor things, they are forced to stop at a service station in the middle of nowhere when the engine starts making weird noises. A mechanic (Ethan Embry) just about to leave for the night helps them out, but a mile down the road, the car breaks down. They hike it back to the motel adjoining the service station, and the manager Mason (Frank Whaley, looking nothing and sounding very little like himself) tells them the garage will open in the morning. The couple books a room for the night, discusses their soon-to-be finalized divorce, and becomes quickly freaked out when the phone rings with no answer and someone begins pounding on the room's doors. David tells the manager, and the disturbances stop. When finally settling down for the night, David finds some video tapes that show people being gruesomely murdered, and after perusing some of them, he realizes the murders happened in the room they are in.

This is the setup—nothing more, nothing less. After the short exposition, the film doesn't relent. Men with painted faces march determinedly toward the room, as David and Amy watch hopelessly from the window. The lights flicker on and off, just as they do in the snuff movie David has turned on (the sound of screams from it cut in and out as the power does). The bathroom window, the only way out that doesn't lead to the painted-face gang waiting outside, is nailed shut. If you think that's a claustrophobic spot they're in, wait till they start crawling through a tight, rat-infested tunnel system underneath the motel. But I get ahead of myself. First, there's no way for David and Amy to communicate with the outside world. The phone booth outside the motel is smashed by a car, but then again the phone line goes directly to the manager's office. Amy's cell phone is crushed in an early pursuit, but then again it didn't receive a signal in the first place. Meanwhile, Mason watches over everything and for some unknown reason delays the inevitable just so the couple can run around some more and avoid slaughter.

Why they don't pounce during the countless opportunities when the time is right is something one has to ignore. Instead, just bask in Antal and editor Armen Minasian's sense of pacing, and the way they keep the level of tension up even after everything has already been resolved. Watch Antal and cinematographer Andrzej Sekula use the motel's eerie exterior neon lighting to make what should be the safety of the outside world as dangerous as the couple's confinement, and how the shadowy image of a single face appearing behind them is a chilling hint of how powerless they are. Ignore screenwriter Mark L. Smith's insistence that the characters forget about a gun hanging over the doorframe of Mason's office (complete with stuffed birds in homage to Psycho) two times too many, and pay attention to the instances when they're smart prey (blocking trap doors, obstructing the view of specific cameras to give their pursuers a misleading idea of what they're doing, creating distractions). Notice that an early scene when the couple speaks of their upcoming divorce has a tangible sadness, but try to disregard that the ending cheats the story and has a villain doing the stupidest thing imaginable.

And please, please take note the way Antal only hints at the violence in Vacancy. Most of it takes place off-screen or is blocked and edited in a way that we only see the result. There's minimal blood here, and that's how it should be. This is a film about an overriding sense of dread, and in capable hands like these, that dread is also tangible.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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