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Vacancy Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 November 2007

Image David (Luke Wilson) and Amy Fox (Kate Beckinsale) are a young couple whose marriage is on its last legs. Recovering from the recent death of their child, they are openly hostile to each other and are days away from signing their divorce papers. On the long drive back from Amy’s parents’ anniversary party, David departs from the interstate to avoid a traffic jam and ends up on a deserted stretch of road, miles from the nearest town. After swerving to miss a raccoon, the couple’s car starts to act up and stalls a couple of miles away from a decrepit fleapit motel. After the odd night manager, Mason (Frank Whaley) informs them that the nearest garage won’t be open until the morning, the two reluctantly check-in for the night. As David and Amy attempt to settle into the filthy room, the two are harassed and unsettled by violent poundings coming first from their front door and then from the room next door. The couple also discovers a pile of unlabelled VHS cassettes, featuring people being violently attacked and murdered. At first they believe the tapes are intense horror films but then they realize that the room featured in all of the videos is the same suite they’re in, and when they discover that cameras are hidden throughout their room they realize that they are both in grave and immediate danger.

This dark and unsettling nail-biter is an efficiently told thriller, which takes the old rundown-motel-as-bad-place idea and crafts it into a tightly-paced fight for survival story. The acting is excellent throughout and the relationship issues between David and Amy are given sufficient and believable weight. While it doesn’t break new ground in its story, director Nimrod Antal conducts the proceedings with a keen and polished eye toward creating suspenseful, nerve-wracking situations. While violent and disturbing in parts, the film doesn’t wallow in gratuitous nastiness and allows the audience to use its imagination occasionally to help increase the identification with the characters. The nearly destroyed relationship between David and Amy is the story’s subplot; the irony that this horrifying series of events might possibly help the two find each other again (if they survive) is interesting and well-handled. The cast is uniformly excellent, and it’s a nice change of pace to see Luke Wilson in a less comedic work and Kate Beckinsale in a much smaller, more intimate film than usual. Frank Whaley, looking somewhat emaciated, is appropriately unsettling as Mason, and Ethan Embry is fine in the standard is-he-or-isn’t-he a bad guy role. Unfortunately, “Vacancy” came and went in a flash, making almost no impression at the box office. The film garnered some nice critical notices, but an almost non-existent promotional campaign failed to generate any audience interest. I caught a screening at the Crest in Westwood with my partner and we were virtually alone in the theater. Somehow being alone in a large public place added to the creep factor, especially when an usher would occasionally pop in and watch the film for a bit, before popping back out. Given the intimate nature of the film and its enclosed hotel room setting, it works extremely well at home and creates a nice spell of paranoid anticipation. It’s not a great, but it’s a very good horror film, worthy of the sleeper audience it hopefully will gain on video. As with most thrillers where not knowing what is going to happen next is the key to the suspense, the first viewing of “Vacancy” is, of course, the most effective. Secondary viewings are still gripping and intense but that special frisson of terror is more effectively generated during your first screening.

“Vacancy” is an extremely dark film with everything taking place at night. Areas of the screen frequently display narrow pools of light surrounded by deep darkness. The shadows that surround the characters amplifies the suspense and gives the audience a sense of dread about possible threats that may be hiding just beyond the beams of light. It’s not a grainy or cheap-looking film, and colors are vivid and boldly defined at times, like the dense colors of the hotel’s neon lights, car taillights, etc. while the rest of the design evinces the grungy, dirty yellows, sickly greens and filthy browns of the unsanitary-appearing settings. The Blu-ray release is crisply detailed and stable with tight facial details. Blacks are deep and dense. Because of the high-contrast images, some ghosting may be visible on some monitors. Early on there is some intercutting between David and Amy where each is in a different part of the frame. Since both characters are almost surrounded in darkness, when a shot cuts to another, a brief ghost image of the previous shot can be seen for a few frames.

In “Vacancy” the characters are terrorized by loud, violent poundings and are subjected to explosions of violence and sudden intrusions. The uncompressed PCM track is an accurate rendition of the theatrical mix with crisp, clean dialogue and extremely effective bass use. The LFE channel is used to appropriately punishing effect and would make a great double-feature with “The Messengers” since both mixes feature aggressive, loud subwoofer use. Both make great subwoofer demos. Once the volume is set for the Saul Bass/Bernard Herrman-esque title sequence and dialogue, it doesn’t need to be readjusted…unless you have sensitive neighbors, thin walls or want to minimize the shocks.

“Checking in” is a half-hour making of featurette whose value is greatly increased by its high-definition presentation. The talking-head interviews and behind-the-scenes clips are well-chosen and are more insightful and relevant than the typical hyperbole-laden EPK promos. All of the principal players and production participants are provided a voice or are included in the making-of footage. The level of audience involvement and interest is greatly increased because of the additional image clarity and detail. There are two deleted scenes, one of which is an alternate opening set in the aftermath of the on-screen events that would have robbed the rest of the film of its sense of mystery and weakened the audience’s suspense of what was going to happen next. The second scene is a brief roadside encounter between David and a raccoon that’s fairly unremarkable. Also included are extended clips of the snuff films that are seen in brief snippets during the film itself. As the glimpses we see of them are already disturbing and unsettling, this is a bonus feature that most would want to avoid. The bonus features are minimal but are substantial enough accompaniment to this overlooked, but worthwhile chiller.

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