Director : Nimród Antal
Screenplay : Mark L. Smith
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Kate Beckinsale (Amy Fox), Luke Wilson (David Fox), Frank Whaley (Mason), Ethan Embry (Mechanic), Scott G. Anderson (Killer), Mark Casella (Truck Driver), David Doty (Highway Patrol)
Vacancy is a nastily effective, rough-edged gem of a horror-thriller. Like the sputtering neon sign evoked in its advertising campaign, you keep expecting that it will peter out, but somehow it stays burning right up until the unexpectedly abrupt, yet entirely appropriate ending. It takes a simple premise and winds it tight, playing the suspense of its survivalist scenario against the tensions of a crumbling marriage, thus giving it the emotional foundation that so many recent horror films have been studiously lacking.
When the film opens, a married couple, David and Amy Fox (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale), are driving down a dark, lonely two-lane road. David has made the mistake of getting off the interstate to avoid a wreck-induced traffic jam, and now they are lost in the backwoods of Nowhere, U.S.A., probably somewhere in the neighborhood of either the Bates Motel or Camp Crystal Lake. The manner in which David and Amy snap and pick at each other quickly suggests that their marriage is not what it once was, especially after the car breaks down and they find themselves walking in the pitch black to a small motel they passed a mile earlier.
The motel itself is a relic--it appears to have been neither updated nor cleaned since it was first built in the late 1950s when it was surely a model of road-side modernist chic. And, even though the bespectacled hotel manager (Frank Whaley) is unquestionably creepy (you can sense the malice oozing from Whaley's plastered grin and cheeseball coiffure), David and Amy decide to spend the night at the motel and wait for a mechanic in the morning. Big mistake.
At first just disgusted by their digs, David and Amy are then alternately startled, annoyed, and soon terrified by an unexpected, loud, and persistent banging on the walls and connecting door from the room next to them. And it's not much longer after that that David and Amy pop a couple of VHS tapes in the room's VCR and find themselves confronted with disturbing imagery of what looks like a nightmare version of Country Fried Home Videos, with unsuspecting patrons of all shapes and sizes playing the role of screaming murder victims at the hands of masked men with knives in the very room in which they're staying. That's when they discover the hidden videocameras. And the banging suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.
Director Nimród Antal, who scored a significant international success with his Hungarian film Kontroll (2003), makes the film work because he allows the tension and suspense to develop slowly and steadily, ratcheting up the sense of dread until it reaches a breaking point. This allows us to get to know to David and Amy and therefore care for them; their fighting and bickering is realistic and human, and Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale should be commended for creating potential victims who are sympathetic and understandable, rather than annoying, despite their flaws. Unlike so many horror protagonists, we don't want to see either one of them die, which makes every threatening scenario crackle and pop.
First-time screenwriter Mark L. Smith has clearly done his genre homework and makes the most of all those horror signifiers of middle America gone terribly, horribly wrong--the forgotten roadside motel, the questionable mechanic, the creepy-weird manager, the hidden tunnels that hint at entire worlds of depravity hidden just beneath the surface of modern society (this ties in neatly with Kontroll, which was shot entirely in the Budapest subway system). Antal has a way of turning banal, familiar environments into something slightly otherworldly, and he gives Vacancy a Twilight Zone vibe; it's as if the rest of the world has simply ceased to exist.
But, what Antal really nails is the terror of entrapment. Once at the motel, the film never moves more than a few hundred feet from the room David and Amy are staying in, which gives Vacancy an increasingly claustrophobic sense that they are like animals trapped in a particularly ugly snare. There are plenty of “don't go in there” moments, but for the most part David and Amy act and react like understandable human beings, and the terror of being stalked is amplified by the distance they feel from each other. Their internal emotional turmoil is externalized in the form of knife-wielding maniacs who represent the very worst of American excess (and, by extension one might argue, the majority of the horror genre itself): mindless slaughter for both fun and profit.
|Aspect Ratio||2.40:1 / 1.33:1|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish|
|Distributor||Sony Pictures Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 14, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|This DVD of Vacancy gives you the option of either anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1) or pan-and-scan presentations. Of course, I didn't bother looking at the pan-and-scan version (no need to), but I will bemoan the fact that it was included and therefore takes up valuable disc space that could have been used for a higher bitrate or maybe an optional DTS soundtrack. The high-definition anamorphic widescreen transfer looks quite good, despite the shared real estate. Vacancy is a very dark film, taking place almost entirely at night, and the black levels and shadow detail are sometimes a little murky, but not distractingly so. Colors are strong throughout, whether it be the garish red cast by the motel's neon sign or the pukish greens and golds of the motel room, and flesh tones appear natural. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is excellent, giving the musical score plenty of room and using the surround channels to envelope you in the exceedingly creepy atmosphere of the motel.|
|“Checking In: Behind the Scenes of Vacancy” is a good 22-minute making-of featurette that includes interviews with director Nimród Antal, writer Mark L. Smith, and stars Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, and Ethan Embry, among others. Among the more interesting parts is time-lapse photography of the construction of the motel set on the same sound stage where The Wizard of Oz (1939) was shot and the discussion of how the final car crash was staged without using any CGI. There are two deleted scenes: one in which David is scared by a raccoon while walking along the highway and an alternate opening sequence that begins with the police investigation at the end of the movie. Included under the name “Mason's Video Picks” is extended footage (9 min.) from the “snuff films” glimpsed in the movie. To be honest, it's a little unnerving that these gruesome videos were included since the film did such a good job of avoiding the easy in-your-face blood and guts that has become so typical of recent horror movies. Why anyone would want to watch the extended snuff films is beyond me, but they're here for those interested.|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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