Vacancy

With one exception, the letter B is stamped all over the high-concept thriller-horror “Vacancy,” from its production company Screen Gems that specialized in cheap movies that are borderline exploitation to the script by newcomer Mark L. Smith to the casting of B-actors Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson (the latter could be A if he's cast in the right vehicles).

The exception is direction of Nimrod Antal, Hungary's prodigy, who made a splash several years ago with the taut supsneser “Kontroll,” a yarn that was mostly set in and around a Budapest subway station. But “Kontroll” is a foreign film and thus few Americans saw his work. It would have been better if the gifted Antal made his Hollywood debut with a worthier material, but we don't know what his motivations or ranges of choices are. My fear is that he would be typecast as “technical” craftsman of sleazy flicks.

Screen Gems scored commercially with “Resident Evil” and “Underworld,” which in fact starred Kate Beckinsale. (Hopefully, she will not become a Screen Gems actress in the way that Gwyneth Paltrow was a Miaramx thespian for half a decade, making one mediocre film after another).

Combination of high concepta couple stranded in a motel where the captors plan to make them the stars of their next snuff flickfast moving plot, and mildly appealing performances from the leads result in a cheesy flick that's passably entertaining, the kind of which young, indiscriminating viewers may see on a Friday and Saturday night, where there is nothing better to do.

This spring may set a record in the number of horror-thriller-actioners (there are no pure genres anymore), with almost every actor, and especially actress, in Hollywood making a generic item, from Sandra Bullock in “Premonition” to Hilary Swank in “The Reaping” to Halle Berry in “Perfect Stranger,” released by no other than Sony last week; Screen Gems is a subsidiary of Sony.

With the exception of the decent (but not great) “Disturbia,” with Shia LaBeouf as a stranded voyeur, all of the above are lousy and trashy pictures that play one weekend at the theatrical marketplace on their way to slightly longer life in ancillary markets. They generate small profits if the budget is low (like that of “Vacancy”) and keep actors (if not audiences) busy. The industry seems to need this kind of fodder for its survival

Since “Vacancy” will vacate the market place rather quickly, there won't be time to discuss the validity, not to mention morality, of making a thriller about a movie within a movie about the snuff phenomenon; a decade ago, there were a number of TV programs, docus, and exposes about this disturbing issue.

Finding themselves stranded on a dark and deserted two-lane highway, David Fox (Luke Wilson) and his soon-to-be former wife Amy (Kate Beckinsale) are forced to spend the night at a seedy motel. Returning from their last trip together before finalizing their divorce, David decides to take an unfamiliar short cut down a desolate back road. When their car breaks down, they think they have no choice but to stay at a nearby motel. This late night detour leads to a nightmare of scary but predictable proportions.

This is not the kind of film where you are supposed to ask questions of logic and probability. Even so, let me raise Query One: In this age of modern technology, why don't David and Amy use their cells and call AAA to rescue them. Didn't David and Amy see or hear of Hitchcock's “Psycho,” and what happened to its heroine Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) when she got stranded on a rainy night and check into the nearest motel Also, would an estranged couple choose an unfamiliar road at night, when they can hardly stare at each other

We close one eye and one ear. The motel is expectedly run by an odd but seemingly harmless proprietor named Mason (Frank Whaley). Query Two: Can Whaley, an intense actor associated with scary and bizarre material, play a harmless, well-meaning motel owner with any credibility Just look at him when he first appears on screen. The distracted night manager Mason seems more interested in watching lurid horror films than helping the Foxes (sorry, that's their last name) with their engine troubles.

In their filthy, threadbare room, the couple, despite the disastrous circumstances, continues to bicker. The arguments reveal some details of their turbulent marriage, a result of the accidental death of their young son. Taking a breather, they resign themselves to a tense and uncomfortable night together in the rundown room. But no sooner do they turn down the ratty bed covers than they begin to hear frantic banging from the room next door. When they complain about the noise, Mason informs the Foxes that they are the motel's only guests (again, like Marion in “Psycho”). As explanation, he and suggests that a vagrant might have broken in and taken up temporary residence next door. Query Three: Wouldn't you leave the motel at this point

But then comes the “big revelation.” Jittery and desperate to unwind, David watches some unmarked videos he finds in the room, which, bingo, turn out to be graphic, low-budget slasher flicks. It takes us a few second (but David a few minutes) to realize with growing horror that the brutal violence in the videos isn't just make-believe.

Fitted with multiple hidden cameras, the motel's “honeymoon suite” thus becomes the arena for a sickening, deadly game of cat and mouse. The couple begins to fear they will be the next victims of the sadistic filmmakers–unless they put aside their differences and work together to escape. As they begin their frantic effort to escape, they find their captors are shooting every move of theirs, toying with them to increase the production's sadistic appeal. With their tormentors closing in fast, David and Amy must learn to depend on each other again if they are to survive the longest night of their lives.

Like “Kontorll,” “Vacancy” is mostly set in a single locale, again allowing helmer Antal to show his technical expertise in manipulating action and suspense within limitations of space and time. The gifted cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, who shot a number of Tarantino pictures and made one bad film as a director, gives the film the right scary mood through his lighting, and admittedly some of motel's interior scenes are well-executed by standards of Hollywood thrillers.

The storyline of the Foxes' loss, love and redemption is just a camouflage for a deft, proficiently produced blend of a bloody horror film and taut psychological thriller. Blessedly, the vacant “Vacancy” is brief (91 minutes), though it barely has a story to fill its time.

Hitchcock's shadow looms large over the movie in other departments: The opening credits represent a cheap imitation of Saul Bass' brilliant work, and Paul Haslinger's music contains motifs that are pale echo of the genius Bernard Herrmann.

In the credits Mark L. Smith's script is described as “original,” in the sense that it's not based on previously published material, but basically, this is another pastiche of pictures, such as “Joy Ride” or “Breakdown,” to name just a few, and “Bug” (also set in a motel room), the upcoming Magnolia release which announces William Friedkin's dubious comeback It may be a coincidence but the heroine's name in “Breadown,” which has similar plot to “Vacancy,” is also called Amy (See Below).

Films of Similar Interest

In “Joy Ride” (2001), John Dahl's unsuccessful effort to stretch as a director beyond his weird noir comedies, two brothers (Paul Walker and Steve Zahn) play a prank on a trucker using his CB radio. Angry, the trucker then takes a terrifying revenge by stalking the couple and the girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski) who joins them. (See My Review).

In “Breakdown,” Jonathan Mostow's superb 1998 suspenser, Jeff (Kurt Russell) and Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), another married couple, drive across the country to California, when their car breaks down in the middle of the desert. Amy accepts a ride with a friendly trucker named Warren “Red” Barr to a small diner to call for help, while Jeff stays with the car. Jeff discovers that their car's problems were caused by dislodged wires and starts his car up again. He drives to the diner to find that no one in the diner had seen his wife. When he catches up with Warren, the trucker swears that he has never seen Amy. You know the rest

After posting this review, an intelligent reader pointed out the blatant similarities between “Vacancy” and Sam Peckinpah's classic “Straw Dogs,” in which the names of the Dustin Hoffman and Susan George characters are David and Amy. “Vacancy” also borrows freely from “Straw Dogs” (co-written by David Zelag Goodman and Peckinpah) situations and encounters. So much for the “originality” of Mark L. Smith's scenario!

Credits

MPAA Rating R
Running time: 91 minutes

Distributed by Screen Gems
Hal Lieberman Company Production.
Directed by Nimrod Antal.
“Original” screenplay by Mark L. Smith
Produced by Hal Lieberman.
Executive producers: Glenn S. Gainor, Stacy Kolker Cramer and Brian Paschal.
Director of photography: Andrzej Sekula.
Production designer is Jon Gary Steele.
Editor: Armen Minasian.
Music: Paul Haslinger.

Reviewed by Limor Roth