(I got a few requests to do some *positive* retro reviews, and that seems like a perfectly logical thing to ask for. Here's one!)

I see dozens of "suspense thrillers" that deliver (maybe) two or three half-hearted attempts at actual suspense, only to follow those moments up with 12-18 minutes of aimless plot-wanderings and general actor-babble. Kinda tough to keep an intense tone going when you've got a bunch of generic and arbitrary subplots that you have to keep cutting to. Nimrod Antal's Vacancy, on the other hand, is a crisp and appreciably intense little horror flick that delivers the goods with no muss, no fuss ... and only a few dangling plot threads that prevent it from being a complete success.

Borrowing a few pages from James Mangold's Identity and reminiscent of John Dahl's roadside chillers, Vacancy is the epitome of formula: It's about an estranged married couple who, following an ill-advised detour and an unfortunate automobile mishap, find themselves spending the night in the seriously grungy Pinewood Motel. It's in their motel room that David and Amy Fox discover a pile of old VHS tapes ... all of which contain footage of actual murders that were committed in (you guessed it) the very same hotel room! Turns out you should never patronize a motel that's run by a "snuff film" producer. Therein lies the deliciously simplistic appeal of Vacancy: It offers a basic-yet-compelling horror story, but it does so in such a crisp and slick fashion that you're more than willing to overlook the few rough spots. (If the killers, who apparently sell their murder videos on the black market, have offed a few hundred people over the years, then how have they not been arrested yet??) But that's nitpicking a plot that was clearly cobbled together and then cut way down so that all we have left is a very quick, very basic story of cat & mouse. Or, more specifically: two mouses and three seriously vicious cats.

As the sniping spouses, Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale contribute some fairly fine work -- although they both begin the flick as annoyingly snippy jerks and slowly thaw out once the jolts start hitting the screen. Frank Whaley and Ethan Embry play a pair of small-town weirdos who just might be hiding something unseemly. That's it, cast-wise: Four main characters, a few unlucky bystanders, and (after the 20-minute set-up) about an hour of surprisingly tight-fisted terrors.

Director Antal, making his English-language debut after the very cool Kontroll, brings a lot more style and confidence to a project that, had it been handed to another young director, would be nothing but hollow screams, wood-panel production design, and a whole lot of blather. But Antal turns Vacancy into a surprisingly respectable Hitchcock homage, believe it or not. (Let's just say the flick owes a lot to Psycho and just leave it at that.) From the very nifty opening credits to a finale that, truth be told, might be the film's biggest weakness, Vacancy maintains its forward momentum with an admirable tenacity.

A creepy concept, well-written and well-shot, anchored by a pair of fine performances and a director who's just as interested in style and intensity as he is in presenting a very slick pace. I'd call Vacancy a 'guilty pleasure' -- only I don't really feel any guilt about enjoying and recommending a fast-paced fright flick like this one.

(Review reprinted from eFilmCritic -- April 22, 2007)
categories Reviews, Horror