Vacancy is my vote for the most unfairly underseen wide-release horror movie of the last ten years. It didn’t get a lot of advertising or buzz, was modestly successful, if I remember correctly, but then effectively dropped off the face of the earth never to be heard from again (except through a direct-to-DVD prequel, which I do my best to ignore the existence of).This is a damn shame, really, as it is a restrained, smart little thriller that could have become a classic with a little more love.
It stars a surprisingly well cast Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale as a married couple driving home after a long road trip. Their marriage is strained due to the recent death of their child, they’re clearly on the verge of a divorce, and when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, they think things can’t get any worse. They take refuge in a nearby dingy motel, and settle in for the night, waiting for the nearby mechanic's shop to open in the morning. Sure, the place is dilapidated, the clerk’s a little weird, and their neighbors like to pound on the walls at odd hours, but it really isn’t that different from most roadside motels. Well, except of course for the masked killers looking to break down their doors and all the hidden cameras filming them as the newest stars of an illicit snuff film operation. That always tends to mess with vacations.
Vacancy takes the standard “trapped at the evil inn in the middle of nowhere” storyline and modernizes it well for the digital era. With reality TV options trying to out-extreme and out-trash each other on a regular basis, the simple concept of a run-down business making money off of killing people and filming their misery doesn’t seem all that out there, which is particularly eerie as hell in the slow burn scene where the characters realize just what is going on here.
What makes Vacancy superior to its similar peers, however, is the fact that we have a movie where people don’t actually behave like they’re in a movie. Once things go to hell, our leads don’t continue bickering; they team together and try to figure a way out. All of their actions are logical and thought out, and aren’t performed just because a screenwriter told them to. Finding a stack of videotapes of previous victims in their room the killers left as a scare tactic, they instead study the tapes to try and find the killers weaknesses. For their own part, the villains go exactly the same way. Once the heroes have figured out one of their tactics, they regroup and form a new plan of attack instead of just running at them head on like any low-rent slasher would.
And of course, it’s impossible to ignore the sublimely creepy performance given by Frank Whaley as the motel manager. Though made to look and sound like a live-action Ned Flanders, his increasingly agitated and violent performance makes him one of my favorite underrated horror villains.
Vacancy may not be a classic, but if you’re looking for an intelligent, hidden gem that doesn’t need gallons of blood or dozens of blades to make its scares, it’s one of the best.
(SPECIAL SPOILERIFIC GRIPE: One of the few things that really holds this movie back, however, is how poorly tacked on its happy ending is. It's true, after all this couple has been through it does feel satisfying in its own way to see them make it out alive, however as Luke Wilson had been stabbed in the gut about 2/3ds of the way through the movie and then left for dead, only to be found alive in the last few seconds of the movie, it feels a little unnecessary and tacked on. I get the distinct hit of studio interference off of it.)
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-- Matt Carter
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