As Jason P. Vargo mused in his theatrical review of "Vacancy," "How many times have a lost bickering couple been stranded at a seedy motel, only to have Really Bad Things(tm) happen?"
Plenty . . . with or without the trademark. While every genre has its conventions, you always hope for something to push it into the realm of the unique, whether it's the performances, the staging, the camera work, or a nifty twist. For the first 20 minutes, though, it's all as familiar as the beginning of every slasher thriller. How do we get the characters isolated, preferably at night, so that they have to put themselves in a situation no rational human being would otherwise do?
In this case, you have a couple who's divorcing because their marriage couldn't take the strain of a dying child, returning late from a family function where they pretended all was well. But on the road, she's "bitchy," and probably for good reason. He's the brainiac who decides to drive off the Interstate for a short-cut and then pushes it when he knows the engine isn't sounding right after he has a close encounter with a raccoon. (By the way, why does it always have to be a raccoon lately, in the movies?)
But then they pull up to the Bates . . . I mean, the Pinewood Motel, where your standard-issue creepy guy is behind the front desk. Seeing a gigantic cockroach on the light switch is probably a bit much. But from the time that these two try to settle down and then the phone rings loudly (no one there), and there's loud pounding on the front door (again, no one there), then pounding on the door to the next room (no answer), and this repeats ad insanium, "Vacancy" really starts to get going. If "Psycho" made people a little wary of showers, then "Vacancy" will make them think twice about stopping at a fleabag motel in the middle of nowhere--even if it's the only room for a hundred miles.
To director Nimrod Antal's credit, he decides to keep most of the slasher violence in the background. This is done in a rather nifty way that's organic to the plot. It turns out that Creepy Guy (Frank Whaley) and two pals get their jollies from torturing and killing their occasional guests and then watching it over and over on film. When Amy and David Fox (Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson) settle into their room and David pops in one of the tapes, they realize, in short order, that the tapes were made in that very room. David quickly locates the cameras, but with pounding danger just outside the door, the $50,000 Question is, how do they get out of there?
As the box notes say (and I'm quoting so no one thinks I'm the spoiler here), "With hidden cameras now aimed at them--trapping them in rooms, crawlspaces, underground tunnels--and filming their every move, David and Amy must struggle to get out alive before they end up the next victims on tape."
Again, to Antal's and screenwriter Mark L. Smith's credit, they avoid what's become commonplace in slasher-thrillers: the obligatory sex scene. All of the sex and violence is on tape, seen with a bluish hue and flickering interference on the same small TV set that the characters view, and that makes it seem far less gratuitous.
Once they get rolling, Smith and Antal milk the genre for all it's worth, alternating hope for the characters' escape with despair, and spacing out the scary confrontations so they don't amount to a single, silly blur. It's particularly chilling when the couple tries to connect with someone on the outside. Beckinsale and Wilson also do a fine job, achieving a nice balance between "selling it" and "keeping it real."
The 1080p picture is mastered in Hi Def and presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Much of the film is shot in darkness or shadow, and Blu-ray does a nice job of picking up details. It doesn't have quite the gloss or high color saturation of the more impressive releases, but it's still a very good picture.
Same with the audio, which is an English uncompressed PCM 5.1, with alternate soundtrack options in English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English, English SDH, and French. There's a sharp clarity to the sound that's essential for the effects to startle, and the PCM soundtrack delivers.
There's surprisingly little in the way of bonus features. No commentary, and no really substantial making-of feature--just a token "Checking in: Behind the Scenes of Vacancy" that feels like more of a preview than a secrets-revealed documentary. There's also an absolutely unnecessary extra "snuff" scene, where all you sickos at home can watch an African-American drug-using duo get killed by the bad guys (I mean, why is this even included? It tells us nothing more about the filmmaking process, and has no value whatsoever that I can tell). Rounding out the bonus features are deleted scenes, including an alternate beginning that would have started at the end and made the whole film a flashback. Good call, Mr. Antal.
Though "Vacancy" doesn't come close to unseating "Psycho" as the all-time scary motel movie, once the creeps and weirdos try to do in the heroes, it's easy to forget it's only a movie, and easy to ignore that "Vacancy" follows all the slasher-thriller conventions with all the dependability of a theme park ride. And that's because, once this gets going, it's a pretty good ride.