The use of motels as a locale for terror has a long, and sometimes distinguished, cinematic history. The classic example, of course, is “Psycho,” but one but one can go back further to Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” and its marvelous scenes also with Janet Leigh (ably seconded by Dennis Weaver). Or one could go forward to a decided non-classic, but still amusing, piece of genre junk like the parody “Motel Hell” (1980), in which hostel-owner and meat-packager Rory Calhoun not only welcomed guests but fattened them up for his own reasons (remember the tagline “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters”?). “Vacancy,” unhappily, doesn’t make a great addition to the register of motel-based horror movies.
The plot devised by Mark L. Smith couldn’t be simpler. David and Amy Fox (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) are a young couple estranged, as we later learn, by the recent death of their child. When their car breaks down, they eventually wind up at a remote fleabag motel, the Pinewood, where, as the only guests, they find video cassettes showing what appear to be the killing of guests in the very room they’re occupying. Soon they’re under assault by masked villains and must struggle to survive, an effort that involves outwitting a master manipulator who’s watching their every move on camera and filming their torment on videotape for resale, sometimes by crawling through elaborately-constructed underground tunnels used by the perpetrators. Of course, in the end it tacks on a “moral”—a suggestion that a disintegrating marriage can be repaired by the husband and wife facing some traumatic challenge together. (Given the high rate of divorce in this country, maybe Screen Gems would be doing a public service by informing viewers who might be having marital difficulties how they might secure a reservation at the Pinewood and hope for a similar benefit.)
The idea behind “Vacancy,” one supposes, was to create a claustrophobic setting for an extended chase—which is all the movie is—that grows in tension as it goes along, an effort not unlike the one Steven Spielberg achieved on the open road in “Duel.” And it’s certainly a spiffy effort, technically skillful, with pro camerawork by Andrzej Sekula, crisp editing by Armen Minasian, a music score by Paul Haslinger that bombastically supports the action, and direction by Nimrod Antal that shows an acquaintance with the stylistic tropes of the genre.
But it fails to generate much excitement in the viewer, and not only because the chase itself is so protracted (and, frankly, repeated scenes of people scurrying through underground earthen tunnels aren’t terribly engaging, even when hordes of rats get involved) and predictable (the script tosses in one major shock toward the close, but then hastily reneges on it). It’s also unsuccessful on its own genre terms because it makes the motivation behind the entire operation explicit (in “Duel,” the villain’s purpose remained deliciously ambiguous and, if you will, existential) and, frankly, implausible. Simply put, the Pinewood is so remote a location one can’t imagine very many people ever stopping there to be slaughtered. Yet the walls of the master plotter’s cubicle show what appear to be hundreds if not thousands of individual tapes on file. And why would the villains tip off guests by putting snuff videos in their room? Wouldn’t they be more terrified if the attacks came out of nowhere? And most basic of all, if this motel had gobbled up so many occupants, wouldn’t it have become the focus of some police interest? (It isn’t like the Bates motel, where only a few guests vanished, and when a cop finally shows up, he seems unaware that the joint even exists. Of course, he turns out to be inept, too.) The holes in the plot are so great that one might suspect that the title refers not so much to the availability of rooms but to the space between the moviemakers’ ears.
The result is that “Vacancy” is less another “Psycho” than just another riff on the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” formula, except for the fact that since for some reason top-tier stars like Wilson and Beckinsale agreed to appear in it (perhaps Wilson needed a check to bankroll his own movie, “The Wendell Baker Story”), they can’t be too brutally treated, and so others have to be dropped in to provided the torture and slaughter scenes so beloved of contemporary horrors shows. (Thus we get not only that doomed cop, who might as well be wearing a “dead meat” sign—but whose disappearance on call would certainly bring down a horde of unwelcome investigators on this supposedly going operation—but so many previous unfortunates on tape that that the final credit crawls actually provide a list of “Snuff Victims.”) Wilson and Beckinsale go through their paces decently enough—it’s no wonder, given the physical shenanigans they have to endure, they don’t bother adding much personality to the characters besides their own. The only other people of any consequence in the cast are Ethan Embry, who passes muster as an oddly friendly gas station attendant, and Frank Whaley as the decidedly suspicious motel manager. Whaley plays the part tongue-in-cheek, like a wild-eyed version of Norman Bates with a malicious streak. He’s way over the top, but probably provides the most fun in the movie.
On the level of a mere thriller, it should be clear by now, “Vacancy” isn’t particularly good. But what’s really troubling about it is that it follows the pattern of recent movies such as “Hostel” or “Turistas” (though, happily, in less graphic terms) in founding its hopes of success on the premise that viewers in the audience will have the same bloodlust as the buyers its villains are targeting. Effectively, it trades on the notion that snuff sells, just as Whaley and his crew do. That makes it a part of a thoroughly disreputable trend in modern horror pictures. And somehow the fact that it’s been produced on a slicker level than its predecessors, with a better cast and crew, makes it even more morally suspect.
But those who gravitate toward this sort of mindless mayhem will probably find the slickly-made “Vacancy” a dream cinematic destination.