In the midst of the current vogue for “torture porn”, where directors such as Aja and Roth compete for the grossest movie moments, it is easy to forget that true movie scares don't come from what the filmmaker does show you, but rather what he doesn't show you. Aja's Haute Tension (2003) was quite simply terrifying when the protoganist was stuck in a empty house being stalked by the murderer, but just got silly once the chainsaws came out.
Those of you purchasing Vacancy expecting “torture porn” will be very disappointed. Yes, the setup sounds like buckets of gore is exactly what you are in for. But the truth is that the film's director (Nimrod Antal) is aping Hitchcock rather than Roth. And the film is all the better for it.
The setup is not encouraging, being unoriginal and derivative. A bickering couple Amy and David Fox (Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson) are making a last trip across country before signing their divorce papers and going their separate ways. Things are insurmountable between them since the death of their young son, which Amy blames herself for.
They are travelling through the night, and with Amy out of it on pills, David is driving alone and takes a short cut. Of course, the car develops a fault and they are lucky to find a mechanic in a lonely garage in the middle of nowhere. He fixes their car, but just a mile down the road, the car breaks down completely, and the couple have no choice but to bunk up for the night in the motel which is attached to the garage.
Settling in, David spots a pile of videotapes by the TV and plays one of them. It soon becomes clear that the tape is of someone being murdered. And that the murder is taking place in the same room they are in now........
What follows is a cat and mouse game as the two hapless people try and escape their inevitable fate and survive through until morning.
Vacancy came as a great surprise to me. As I said, what I was expecting was another brainless gore fest. But what I got was an extremely well crafted, taut, frightening experience. When David is viewing the Videos at the beginning, we are only showed very brief flashes of the videos, with the camera lingering on the characters reactions to what they are saying. This, and the sound from the tapes serve to frighten us much more than seeing the events - and this sets the template for the whole film.
What also helps is the performance of the two leads. I am unfamiliar with either actors but they both put in an excellent shift here. Neither of them are just placements, merely screaming their way through the movie. They are well written, three dimensional characters, and both actors bring much to their roles. The chemistry between the two is very believable, you really do feel the tension between them and can see it melting as they have to rely on each other for survival.
There is really only one more major role in the movie, that of the motel owner Mason (Frank Whaley). Whaley does a superb job as the unhinged psycho - unravelling before our very eyes as he loses control of the situation.
Not all is well in the world of Vacancy however. One of the film's biggest flaws are the gaping plot twists. I will not give these away here, as to do so will spoil events later in the film. But if you are the kind of person who demands logic from the films they watch, you may well find yourself frustrated that so much good work on behalf of the filmmakers gets undone by terrible plot devices which are simply designed to move the film in a pre-ordained direction.
The ending of the film has also come in for criticism. The film just ends abruptly. Personally, I did not have too many problems with the way the ending occurred. It seemed to me to add to the realism of the film. The only problem I did have with the ending was the actual events that occur (I am trying not to give too much away). It almost seemed that the ending we get was tacked on to please audiences rather than fit in with the rest of the events.
So, there we have it. A film that is full of masterfully created tension, spoilt by some gaping plot twists. A film chock full of excellent perfomances, let down by a disappointing ending. To sum up, this is a brave attempt to do something different to the norm in the horror genre - and I can imagine Hitchcock making something like this if he was alive today. The film may not entirely succeed but if you can overlook the plot holes then you will thoroughly enjoy this film. Even if you can't, if you are at all a fan of horror movies then you should give this one a go. And even if you miss the blood and gore, then there's always the extras (of which more later).