I wasn’t expecting much going into Vacancy. I figured it would just be your run of the mill “gorror” film. My interest was officially peaked when I spied a particular line in the description for the movie: “A suspenseful, classic thriller, in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock”. A horror film from 2007 emulating Alfred Hitchcock? This I had to see. Would it do the Master of Suspense justice, or disgrace his name just by associating with him?
Vacancy draws influence from Hitchcock’s Psycho. Both involve a motel run by a crazy killer who preys on his guests. They really shot for the Hitchcock feel with this movie too. There is a cool opening credit sequence that looks and sounds like something out of an old Hitchcock thriller. The pacing and even the tone are similar to Hitchcock films. Vacancy is darker and more modern visually, but it’s a nice little send off to Hitchcock. Other little references, like stuffed birds on the motel desk are a nice touch. The basic plot of Vacancy is that a married couple’s car breaks down and they have to spend the night at a motel run by a creepy manager played by Frank Whaley. They soon discover that the hotel is used as the set for snuff films and that they will become part of one.
The two leads of the film are Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale. They both do a good job and the acting overall is above par for a horror film of this stature. The relationship between the two characters is well constructed and realistic but they do sometimes beat you over the head with their exposition. Mostly it is cleverly danced around but sometimes it comes off as heavy handed. A problem with many horror movies is having a protagonist the audience doesn’t care about. If the audience doesn’t care whether the characters live or die, then there is no tension. Often times you end up rooting for the bad guy. How often do you watch one of the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and root for the teens? In Vacancy you really root for the protagonists and you want to see them get out of this situation. The film has some surprisingly good dialogue near the beginning and the actors deliver it well. The motel manager played by Frank Whaley (who looks like Matt Damon’s character from The Informant) gives a strong performance. He’s no Anthony Perkins, but he’s still creepy.
The cinematography is also above par for a horror film. Shots are framed well and the lighting is great. The film really knows how to use darkness to it’s full potential. The beginning builds superb tension before hitting you with the scares. They let you get to know the characters, establish the setting, creep you out a little bit, and then it unloads all it has on you. When the creepy stuff first begins to happen it’s at it’s strongest. By the end of the film it’s run it’s course and feels a little dragged out and doesn’t introduce any new ideas for a while.
Vacancy was directed by Nimrod Antal, who besides having an awesome first name, is more than competent when it comes to building tension. I remember the ads for this film was making it out to be a trashy, gory, unintelligent, generic horror film, when in actuality it’s a well constructed dark thriller. The promotional campaign for this movie was terrible and was probably why the movie didn’t do so well.
Vacancy really took me by surprise in terms of its quality. That being said, there are still some problems. The film starts to run out of steam towards the end. It falls into quite a few horror cliches seemingly by total accident. One major drawback is that there are a group of people who attack the main characters and just seem like mindless goons which really takes away from the film. The tension immediately drops when you get a good look at them and realize how non-threatening they are. Luke Wilson probably could’ve just beaten them up since he looks tougher than them and hat’s a big no-no for horror movies.
Something that sets Vacancy apart from other horror films of its class is its capacity to be subtle. Most horror films in recent years feel the need to shove everything in your face, but Vacancy understands the unknown and the obscured things are often more frightening than what is presented to you up front. One of the best shots of the movie is when one of the snuff film is playing on the TV, except Luke Wilson’s head is blocking it so you only see the very edges of the video and you hear the sounds of chaos. That is a brilliant and well chosen shot that is much more effective than it would’ve been to just show the TV screen. Vacancy also makes use of literary devices that films often neglect. There is some excellent foreshadowing in the beginning that is reincorporated later on.
They went on to make a Vacancy 2 and in 2010 there was a blatant rip-off of the film called Terror Trap calling itself “a reproduction of Vacancy.” Unfortunately the film stars Michael Madsen who I really wish would get the chance to make good movies again. He is a great actor who just hasn’t had a decent role in a while.
Overall, Vacancy far surpassed my expectations. Sure, it’s no Psycho, but it’s still a damn good movie. NOTE: It’s currently free on Crackle so definitely check it out.
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