How many times have a lost bickering couple been stranded at a seedy motel, only to have Really Bad Things™ happen? Countless, starting all the way back with the granddaddy of motel horror movies, "Psycho." For some reason, despite the myriad ways "Vacancy" could fail, it never does. Instead, the film knowingly winks at the other entries in the genre without being self-referential like "Scream" or overly gory like the "Saw" franchise. Moreover, the two leads characters (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) are smart.
While traveling home from an anniversary party, David and Amy find themselves off the interstate and, for all intents and purposes, lost with a broken down car. Checking into a motel in a no-light town, they are immediately harassed by someone in the room next to them. What follows is a fight to survive until daylight for the couple. But who can they trust…if anyone?
Let's start right off the bat with the reasons this film should never have been made. Simply, we've seen it before. The arguing couple; the car breaking down; no cell phone signal; backwoods motel; demented killers; and the wholly predictable ending. Fine, now those are out of the way, I'll be damned if "Vacancy" doesn't use those genre staples to twist the screws to the audience.
The first and most obvious thing "Vacancy" does different from many of its contemporary thriller films is the violence. It doesn't show the vast majority of it. Take, for instance, an encounter late in the film between the motel manager (Frank Whaley) and Amy. She is apparently hit in the face several times, yet that bit of behavior is obscured behind a curtain. We see Whaley's arm drawing back to punch her repeatedly, yet the actual contact is kept safely off screen.
Another example: David, upon entering their room, puts a VHS tape into the deck and presses play. He sees people in rooms not unlike theirs being attacked and killed. (Not a spoiler since that piece of information is in the trailer.) Anytime someone on the TV screen has a throat slit or other gruesome act committed on them, David's head-or another object as happens later in the film-is in the way. There is on-screen violence, but it is mostly relegated to chases and a somewhat extended final fight. Even the deaths of two characters aren't as bloody or visceral as they could be.
It's hard to understand why this approach was taken ("Vacancy" is rated R), except for the same reason not seeing the shark in "Jaws" is more terrifying that having the animal on screen: our brains can imagine things far worse than anything that could ever be committed to film. With the violence kept just off- screen and seeing only the reactions of the characters, the audience finds itself just out of the information loop.
I already mentioned Amy and David are smart. In the context of horror heroes, they are. And in the context of the people who were killed before them, they're geniuses. Why? They behave as reasonably intelligent adults might in a similar situation. David knows the duo are no match for a group of killers in the dark, especially in an unfamiliar environment, so he doesn't engage them in hand-to-hand combat. Some version of "Buffy"-ish martial arts doesn't suddenly "come" to Amy when she needs it the most. In fact, she even falls asleep during the film, an act wholly human.
Weapons don't suddenly manifest themselves just because they're needed; David finds makeshift weapons in their room. After a horrendous glut of horror movies which progressed from terrifying ("A Nightmare on Elm Street") to just insufferably miserable ("Darkness Falls"), "Vacancy" reminds us what made "Psycho" the legend it is: a handful of sets and human characters.
If I have any gripes--and I do--it's the snarky back and forth between David and Amy which goes on for just a bit too long. Sure, they have their marital issues and are headed for divorce (because of a dead so . . . we'll get to that in a minute), but while we're watching these two interact in a car for the first twenty minutes or so, you start to wonder how they ever stayed together for any length of time in the first place. After the death of a child, a therapist would be a necessity; I can't imagine either of them took that step.
Okay, as for the child: sure, there has to be a reason for the anger and hurt on both sides, but isn't a dead off-screen child just a little much? The information is subtly thrown into "Vacancy" at various points, leading the audience to allude it will factor in at some later point. It doesn't. There is no child for the two to protect (thankfully); no child comes after them; and their child stays dead. Couldn't the marriage trauma have been cheating or a simple lack of communication instead of a dead kid? It feels just a little callous.
With horror films of the past ten years or so, the cast has been populated by kids. Think back to "Cabin Fever" or the miserable "Hostel"…how many parts in "Saw II" were played by teen actors…the "Scream" franchise… Yes, they all had a couple adult actors, but "Vacancy" eschews the young adults in favor of Beckinsale and Wilson. And that decision yields fabulous results. From the minute they come on screen, both actors project a feeling of being grown up and experienced. I'd much rather have adults act like adults over teens trying to be adults with disastrous results. Why does it even matter? As already mentioned, David and Amy are smart; they think about the situation and don't make bad decisions. They use what is at their disposal as best they can. And they don't freak out like the teen characters all too often do. And it is only their smarts which . . . nah, I won't ruin the ending.
Speaking of the ending, I was hoping for something different, since the entire movie simultaneously is and is not a departure from the genre. It is the aspect of the film I have the most problems with, from a sheer believability standpoint. Again, I won't ruin it. Suffice to say, I wanted something very different.
"Vacancy" tries its hardest to use the conventions of the horror genre to its advantage and, by and large, it does. Some solid acting by the two leads (and a wonderfully off the wall/sadistic supporting role by Whaley) helps enormously, as does a smart script by a first time writer and first time American director. Watch for a spectacularly mesmerizing opening credits sequence, too.
On the scale of 1 to 10, "Vacancy" gets a 7. It is only a few minor quibbles and the ending which prevents it from earning anything higher.