Synopsis: A married couple is stranded at an isolated motel after their car breaks down and is soon stalked by masked killers for their snuff films.
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry
Director: Nimród Antal
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: As the market became saturated with run-of-the-mill horror leftovers in the later part of the 2000s, it became imperative to stand out from the crowd. Recycled plots and familiar characters wouldn’t do; audiences may be easy to please, but they asked for entertainment that considered their evolving tastes. While streaming/on-demand services weren’t yet on the horizon, giving viewers the ability to quickly drop out of movies that weren’t hitting the mark, it was increasingly clear that in this genre, first impressions were everything.
So, it bodes well for director Nimród Antal (Predators) to start Vacancy with such a tremendous bang. Something as simple as a tension-building credits sequence helps this fast-paced thriller hit the ground running and never stop for 85 minutes. A more subdued introduction with drawn-out exposition may have been the traditional way of turning up the heat. However, armed with Mark L. Smith’s (Overlord) tight script, game performances from a tiny company of actors, and noted Tarantino cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs), Antal opts for an early check-in to Vacancy’s chills.
It’s already been a long night for David and Amy Fox. Putting on fake smiles at a family gathering, the couple in turmoil have exhausted their attempts to make their marriage work and are headed for divorce. Attempting a shortcut, David (Luke Wilson, 12 Mighty Orphans) makes a wrong turn off the highway and, when their car starts having issues, feels Amy’s (Kate Beckinsale, Total Recall) withering glare. Luckily, they remember passing an automotive repair shop next to a disarming roadside motel with a mechanic (Ethan Embry, First Man) still on duty. A series of events leads them to be forced to spend the night at the motel, which is run by the polite, if slightly creepy, Mason (Frank Whaley, The Shed).
As the Foxes prepare for an uncomfortable night stuck in the middle of nowhere, natural curiosity has David looking around their kitschy room. Amongst the dated décor and musty sheets is a video, and it’s far from the exciting home movie he thinks he’ll find when he pops it into the available player. The tape depicts a violent murder in the same room, one of many committed on the premises by a team of killers who like to document their brutal slayings. With secret ways into the room that don’t involve a lock and key, they’ll eventually find their way to David and Amy, but can the troubled couple put their differences aside and survive the night?
All four actors handle their roles with style, especially Wilson and Beckinsale, who must apply a certain amount of uncomfortable pressure to their characters in Vacancy early on as a couple that could appear unlikable. The situation they are in obviously brings them closer together, but it also asks them to renew their trust in one another along the way. Whaley and Embry are good at giving off scary energy; proper menace doled out with just the right dash of camp.
The premise of Vacancy requires a decent amount of chess pieces to be placed on the board before the game can truly begin. Yet that opening sequence has set us on edge, so we have braced ourselves from the beginning for something to happen. Like The Strangers, which arrived a year later, Vacancy’s scares often rely not on the danger of leaping onto the screen from off-camera but on the terror gradually making itself known from a distance. The longer the characters don’t see the menace coming toward them, the more our hearts race, and we yell back at the screen for them to turn around.
Short enough to fit into a Halloween marathon as a late-night add-on that you won’t conk out in, Vacancy delivers plenty of fun thrills during its brief runtime. Through the confident direction of an airtight script, it succeeds not just on a technical level but through performances that elevate it from cheap drive-in schlock. It just works terrifically well and isn’t afraid to make an effort to frighten you. That’s a movie worth making a reservation for.