The big difference between Vacancy and all the torture-porn movies Hollywood has been flooding the horror market with lately is that this one doesn’t expect its audience to get off on violence. Where movies like Hostel are constructed to glorify the next sick, twisted kill Vacancy is a flashback to a time (three years ago?) when you were actually supposed to root for the film’s protagonist to survive. After spending the past few years wallowing in horror movie perversion, frankly, it’s kind of a relief.
The movie follows David (Luke Wilson) and Amy (Kate Beckinsale) Fox, an unhappy, soon to be divorced couple who breaks down in the middle of nowhere and ends up forced to spend the night in a grungy little roadside motel miles from any sign of civilization. Unless of course you count the creepy little clerk behind the check-in desk. He gives them a key to the honeymoon suite and the couple locks themselves in for the night as David decides to watch a TV. There’s no television reception, but there is a VCR and an unlabeled VHS tape. The tape seems to be a low budget horror movie filmed right in their room. Suddenly David realizes he’s not watching a movie, he’s watching people actually being killed. The air vents above their bed are stuffed with cameras, and it’s only a matter of time before masked miscreants break into their room to torture and murder David and Amy on camera, the way they’ve done with so many others.
The premise isn’t exactly original, motels have long been creepy cinematic locals. But the way Nimrod Antal shoots it makes the whole thing feel fresh and thrilling. The story is actually pretty bare-bones, leaving plenty of room for Antal to get creative with how he handles what happens to David and Amy. It builds slowly, but even the buildup is pretty scary. The movie is littered with little hints about what’s going to happen to the Fox’s, the clues are everywhere for them to pick up on, but they react the way all of us would in that situation. When they hear blood-curdling screams coming from the back of the motel manager’s office for instance, they assume (as we all would) that he’s just watching a movie. But there’s something off about those screams. They’re too real, and even though you probably know where the movie is headed, little buildup moments like that put a chill down your spine.
I really loved how stripped down and raw the whole movie feels. Once things get going there’s never a moment’s pause and Vacancy races along building on moment after moment of genuine terror. The whole thing clocks in at around 80 minutes, but it’s a satisfying 80. Vacancy knows not to hang around too long begging for attention; it gets on the screen, gets to the point, and gets off without any neatly wrapped up posturing. When it ends, it just ends.
It’s also great how aware David and Amy are of how much trouble they’re in. So often horror movies seem to contain characters who have never seen horror movies or watched the local news. Vacancy presents people who have enough sense to instantly recognize their situation, panic, and then try to use their brains to get out of it. They don’t fall for any of the usual horror movie clichés, and Antal avoids the use of cheap camera tricks to get scares the movie hasn’t earned. Our terror stems directly from David and Amy’s awareness of how desperate their situation is, and they’re likable and real enough that rooting for them to survive is fun.
Vacancy looks good and feels good. The script isn’t especially creative, but the way Antal handles it is. The film is flat out pretty without being fake and glossy. It's a wash of bright colors, dark shadows, and grimy atmosphere. The film is a thriller in every sense of the word, and one you don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying. It’s the best, big-budget, glitzy Hollywood horror movie I’ve seen in years.