In the 1979 Vietnam War epic APOCALYPSE NOW, Frederic Forrest’s Chef warned us, “Never get out of the boat.” In 2007, VACANCY brings the warning closer to home: “Never get off the Interstate.” You see, you needn’t travel to the jungles of Vietnam to find hidden dangers waiting and even eager to kill you; they’re available in the highways and by-ways of America, located on winding roads in the middle of next to nowhere – places where the descendants of Norman Bates (and perhaps the distant cousins of the Texas Chainsaw family) continue to preside over isolated (and quite literal) roach motels, where guests check in but most definitely do not check out.
Amy and David Fox (Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson) are typical victim fodder for this genre: far from being noble heroes, they’re barely likable; it’s the filmmakers way of flashing a big middle finger at Hollywood conventions, telling the audience to leave sentiment at the door because this bickering couple might get whacked just for the helluva it, so why waste any tears over them? David makes the regrettable mistakes of (a) getting off the Interstate highway on a long road trip and (b) swerving to avoid a raccoon in the middle of the road. The latter near-accident causes engine trouble that forces the Foxes to spend the night in a roach-infested motel run by the amusingly creepy Mason (Frank Whaley, suggesting where John Waters might have ended up if the film-making gig had not worked out). Along the way, we learn that Amy and David are getting a divorce, but they kept the news quiet so as not to ruin the party (thrown by her parents) from which they are returning home. It’s not long before a perusal of some home-made videotapes in the “honeymoon suite” reveal that the room has been used as the setting for a series of snuff films, in which motel guests are unwillingly cast as the victims. This leads to a long, tense game of cat-and-mouse between the Foxes and Mason’s two accomplices, who seem to enjoy drawing out the suspense for maximum dramatic effect. Amy and David try to figure out a way to survive, but how can they hope to escape from a trap where so many before them have met a ghastly fate?
For about nine-tenths of its brief length, VACANCY walks the razor’s edge of eating its cake and having it, too. Mark L. Smith’s script deliberately places the film within the realm of torture-horror movies in which characters away from home run into terrible trouble that makes their petty family disputes look like small potatoes; the very set-up suggests the almost ritualistic “lamb to the slaughter” approach in which characters are created merely to be fed to the meat grinder.
However, even as the script seems to be following the formula, Smith is subtly undermining it. A few deft strokes of exposition fill us in on the pain (over a dead son) that has driven Amy and David apart; and, even when they are fighting, we see – somewhere beneath their skin – the yearning to reach some kind of truce that will allow them to behave decently toward each other, even if their love is gone. The unhappy couple traverses the arc from chainsaw-fodder to audience identification figure almost unnoticed, and instead of eagerly anticipating the kill, the viewer begins to dread the approaching doom. In short, the film takes a step toward being a tense thriller rather than a mindless horror-fest.
VACANCY goes even a step farther toward undermining (while simultaneously exploiting) horror conventions. Mason’s stock in trade is turning bloody violence into entertainment. The room in which he orchestrates his mayhem is loaded with hidden cameras that allow for extensive “coverage” of the action from different angles, and more than once Mason is seen with his hand-held camera, eagerly trying to capture the money-shot in close-up. He’s a more professional version of the two Euro-killers from FIFTEEN MINUTES, and VACANCY clearly wants you to make some kind of connection between him and a horror film director. It’s as if he watched HOSTEL too many times, decided Eli Roth was a wimp too frightened to actually do any of the things he imagined on film, and decided to take the experiment to the next logical step.
What message we are meant to derive from this is a little less clear. Is VACANCY merely indulging in a little good old-fashioned hypocrisy, condemning the very thing it exploits? Or is it using Mason (and the type of graphic horror entertainment he represents) as a meager measuring stick that is meant to make the relatively restrained approach of VACANCY look grandiose and gloriously subtle by comparison? Whatever the case, director Nimrod Antal (whose name looks like an anagram for…well, something) handles the suspense with a refreshing minimum of gore, crafting scares and tension that reveal contemporary competitors like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING for the ham-handed crudities they are.
Antal does such a good job that you almost overlook the absurdities built into the screenplay, such as the fact that Mason does not make his snuff movies for his own enjoyment; he sells them for profit, blissfully unconcerned that one of his customers might get popped by the police and use one of those videotapes as a bargaining chip for a sentence reduction. It goes without saying that engine trouble will strike the Fox’s car just at the right time to get them to pull in at the horror hotel, and one is left to ponder, without explanation of any kind, the lax attitude of the local police, who seem completely unconcerned about the disappearance of one of their officers after a 911 call. (Toward the end, a dispatcher’s voice over the phone seems only annoyed to receive another 911 call, dismissively saying, “We already responded.” Yeah, and the responding officer never called in, never filed a report, and never returned to the station. But so what?)
Plot points aside, the film sustains itself quite nicely thanks to its tight focus on two characters trapped in a seemingly inescapable situation. When the excrement strikes the spinning blades of the electrical air-circulation device, the couple actually shows a modicum of good sense that immediately separates them from the too-stupid-to-live people inhabiting THE HILLS HAVE EYS 2 and other films of that ilk.
The characterization is enhanced by the performances of two actors who might have seemed miscast. The British Beckinsale drops the cool English poise seen in UNDERWORLD and UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION in favor of displaying convincing distress and a convincing American accent; meanwhile, Wilson proves he can deliver a serious performance without abandoning his essential nice guy persona, simply by dropping the comedy shtick that served him so well in IDIOCRACY. In contrast, Whaley deserves bonus points for hinting that Mason, when he is not sure he has the upper hand, is just a pathetic worm.
The score by Paul Haslinger (formerly of Tangerine Dream) has a wonderfully intricate main title theme that perfectly sets the tension at the beginning and even helps add an edge of uncertainty to the too-pat happy ending. One suspects there must have been some post-production tampering, because the film loses its footing in the final reel, converting into a mechanical, manipulative thriller.
Which might not be so bad, but Antal just can’t quite deliver the lowest common denominator goods with conviction. Sure, we get to see the tables turned, but we want to see the camera turned as well. These murderers enjoyed maximizing the suffering of their victims; it would be only fitting to see them hoist on their own petard. A car crash and a few gunshots are not enough; at the very least, we want to see Mason’s camera shoved up his…well, you get the idea.
Amy and David don’t see the cavalry coming to the rescue.
Still, nine-tenths of a good movie is not bad by the standards of American horror films circa 2007; it is even more impressive when you stop to think that the premise (a couple find snuff movies in their motel room) seems like a good set-up for a half-hour short but not enough to sustain a feature film (which probably explains the short running time).
The Catch 22 of suspense is that getting your audience to like your characters means the audience will want to see them survive, but if the survival is a foregone conclusion, it undermines the suspense. In the end VACANCY tries too hard to play with audience expectations, stumbling badly in its attempt to have it both ways. It serves up one of those conclusions telling you the horror the characters have endured is just a trial by fire for their own benefit, a sort of catalyst for personal growth that will solve whatever problems they had before jumping into the frying pan. Rather in the manner of media treatment of real life tragedies (like the Virginia Tech massacre, which took place only a few days before VACANCY’s release), the film suggests that being wounded doesn’t leave scars; it is merely a pretext for the healing that will follow.
VACANCY(2007). Directed by Nimrod Antal. Written by Mark L. Smith. Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry, Scott G. Anderson.