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There’s no way around it: Vacancy is nasty. The premise is about a creepy motel owner (as if there’s any other kind) who manages a gang of murderers and surreptitiously shoots snuff films in the rooms. He sells the films, and he also enjoys them—in fact, he’s watching one of his creations at top volume when his next targets wander into the lobby at the start of the movie. But it’s not like the guests don’t get any warning. Each filthy room comes complete with a VHS collection of the men’s previous work for the customers’ viewing terror, heavy on women in nighties getting pulled around by their hair.
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Yet…well, if you can excuse its inherent abhorrence, Vacancy is pretty good, too. Props go to director Nimród Antal for maximizing tension while minimizing gore—are you listening, Eli Roth?—which makes this most dangerous game way more palatable. It all begins with a slasher-flick cliché: Amy (Kate Beckinsale) and David (Luke Wilson), a couple on the verge of divorce, are on a road trip and realize they’re lost after David tries a shortcut. Things get worse when he swerves to avoid a raccoon and screws up the car. Naturally, they’re in the middle of nowhere, and naturally, it’s the middle of the night. (It doesn’t help that their honeymoon has long been over: When Amy repeatedly calls the animal they nearly hit a squirrel, David hisses, “You know? It was a fucking raccoon.”) So they reluctantly check in to a deserted motel, cared for by Mason (Frank Whaley), a thin, long-faced nerdy type with giant glasses and a grudge.
Vacancy is Antal’s first American movie and only his second feature after his excellent debut, the Hungarian festival-favorite Kontroll. Like that film, Vacancy is highly claustrophobic, taking place mainly in the small motel room as well as a suffocating tunnel system underneath. It’s also efficient: Amy and David have barely settled in when the phone rings (no one’s there), there’s banging on the door (no one’s there), the phone rings again (you guessed it), and the banging resumes (this time on a door adjoining another room as well as the couple’s own). It’s all terrifically disturbing and should tense you up good for the rest of the hunt, in which Amy and David are heavily surveilled and find themselves seemingly trapped by freaky, gray-masked killers who patiently wait to block the pair’s every dodge.
Comparisons to Psycho are inevitable, but Antal’s homage to Hitchcock goes beyond the Bates-ian storyline. The credits are dramatic and menacing: large red and white blocked letters accompanied by an aggressive string soundtrack. The director’s shots are often elegant, too; he captures Amy’s reaction to the car breaking down not by pointing the camera in her face but by capturing her reflection in the driver’s-side mirror. Though Beckinsale, a Brit, occasionally loses her American accent, she and Wilson are great as a combative couple and even better as victims—these characters actually sweat, get dirty, and cry during their ordeal, and you’re terrified for them every minute. For a plot that’s so gleefully disturbing, Vacancy offers a surprising amount of old-school fright-film class.