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April 20, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | April 20, 2007 |

Amy and David Fox (Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson) are driving along at night somewhere in rural California. Dave has made the predictably bad decision to leave the interstate and take a short cut, getting them lost in the middle of nowhere. Amy is understandably crabby about this, but something else seems to be undercutting their acrimonious bickering. The couple initially look like standard cultural archetypes — he’s stubborn and blandly sensible, while she’s a nagger and a worrier. We later learn, as a breakdown strands them in some two-building town with a derelict hotel and gas station, that the couple has recently lost a child and their marriage is dissolving. Beckinsale and Wilson, though not particularly known for their talents in a dramatic context like this, do succeed in establishing a kind of rapport that strengthens audience concern.

In this way, director Nimrod Antal (Kontroll) successfully builds some interest in the characters, but little in the way of suspense — the trailer for Vacancy has already provided us with the exact arc and conflict for 75 percent of film. Once the couple arrive at the town’s dilapidated roach motel, run by a loopy, eccentric named Mason (Frank Whaley), things go downhill fast. Their grubby room contains several unmarked tapes that turn out to be snuff films, and thereafter the pieces fall into place. The very same disturbing, masked marauders begin banging on the windows and doors, trapping Amy and David in the room. And, of course, they can’t call for help, because they are out of cell-phone range (the day that cell phone companies fix the goddamn out of range issue in this country is the day that modern horror movies die).

Vacancy succeeds, partially, in this middle section of the film where the story reaches its central crisis because its conceit is fairly disturbing (snuff studio trap?) and unpredictable. The claustrophobia of the setting also works in its favor, but the limitations of Mark L. Smith’s script just doesn’t give the story anywhere to go. After we’re introduced too early to the premise and villains, Vacancy is a simple cat-and-mouse game based on the old Tourist Trap horror tropes, and it wraps up much too quickly and neatly by the end.

As throwaway thriller-fare, you could do a lot worse than Vacancy, though that’s hardly a ringing endorsement — you could do worse than Chilis, too, but I’m not suggesting you order the Mombo Combo simply because IHOP’s T-Bone Steak and Eggs exists somewhere in the world. The adequate acting and direction does build some suspense; a few brief scenes are even pretty scary, but the weak writing, lackluster ending, and ridiculously over-the-top finale bring the film down and sabotage the intended creepiness along the way. Save this boring genre flick for a rainy Saturday night on HBO when you’re too lazy to get up and grab the remote from across the room.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

S'Nuff Said

Vacancy / Phillip Stephens

Film | April 20, 2007 |

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