22 April 2007 | gswanson17
Linear Thriller, Avoids Pitfalls of Genre
Amy (Kate Beckinsale) and David Fox (Luke Wilson) are returning from an arduous family reunion, on their way to Los Angeles. On their trip they encounter car problems and inevitably pull into a motel Norman Bates could feel right at home at. After some awkward exchanges with the owner, they reluctantly decide to spend the night. Upon viewing some tasteless horror films in the room, David begins to suspect their authenticity, and that these are actual murders taking place. Furthermore, he is led to believe the room that these events take place in is none other than the room they are currently residing. With this initial set-up, Vacancy wastes no time launching the audience into an engaging, gripping, and somewhat macabre story while borrowing sparingly from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and managing to side step many land mines other horror films fail to see.
Vacancy has both positives and negatives going for it, however the negatives don't seem to affect the narrative as frequently as in other films. The first thought that came to my mind was its running time. At eighty five minutes, the film may move at too brisk of a pace for some, and at times it feels like it should be part of a short horror film festival, rather than a stand alone feature film. The clichés are very apparent as well-the broken-down car, the mysterious stranger, the out-of-range cell-phone, and the creepy hotel are included, but rather than using them as a crutch for a poor script, the film seems to celebrate their existence. It epitomizes all horror films where the main characters are stranded, encounter mysterious people or creepy locations. The film also fails to successfully flush out the "snuff" film aspect that was so heavily advertised and anticipated. The screen time of these films is very limited and the focus on them is brief. They serve as an fundamental set-up, but after their initial appearance, they fall out of sight and out of mind.
What makes the film much more successful than the average "teen slasher" horror film is, ironically, the absence of teens in the film. In recent years the most successful horror films, in my opinion, like The Sixth Sense, What Lies Beneath, Stir of Echoes, and Hide and Seek all revolve around families, and in particular, the relationships between adults. In Vacancy, Amy and David are a married couple one argument away from a divorce and unlike an amorous, oblivious, teenage couple about to become mincemeat for an axe-murderer, the tension between David and Amy puts them on edge throughout the whole film and translates to tension in the audience while the film builds its suspense. The build of the film also differs from the main pattern set by modern "slasher" films. Winding like a key, the tension never lets down, and unlike the ups and downs of "slasher" films where there are multiple apexes of horror, there is a ratchet effect in Vacancy, where there is no relief and each scene is built upon the previous one. The other very obvious asset to the film is its relative lack of violence compared to most other modern horror films. In recent years, films such as the Saw series, Hostel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes have lazily resorted to the shock factor to scare their audience rather than rely on the old saying "It's not the bang that is scary, but rather, the anticipation to the bang." That's not to say that the film isn't violent free, there is some definite violence involved, but in comparison to other films it seems, dare I say, minimal or practical.
The references to Hitchcock's Psycho are refreshingly flattering rather than annoying. In Disturbia, a recent loose remake of Hitchcock's Rear Window, the similarities become annoying and the film loses its intrigue. In Vacancy, the nods to Psycho are very slight. The Pinewood Motel itself is the most obvious example which, like the Bates Motel, is in serious need of redecorating. The beginning credits also throw back to Psycho with its vertical bars violently moving around to forceful string instruments. There are similar references to Halloween as well, but the one thing the film lacks is the characters' emotional dilemma and their feelings of guilt involved in their situation. In Psycho it is Marion's (Janet Leigh) moral dilemma over stealing the money, and in Halloween it is Laurie's (Jamie Lee Curtis) feelings of social inequity. Amy and David do not share this external baggage-their troubled relationship is seemingly repaired through this trial that they are put through and not manifested by a killer such as Michael Myers or Norman Bates. There is no name given to whoever pursues them and there is no correlation that can be drawn between the characters and their tormentors.
All in all Vacancy hits a few high points and is a smart enough film to stay clear of areas where previous horror movies have failed (horrible twist endings such as in Identity). Vacancy has a decent build of suspense, the exclusion of gratuitous violence helps, and the characters are more likable than those of the average horror movie. The letdown is that the film doesn't take any substantial risks. It follows a very linear path, with no deviations, and stays almost exclusively at the motel. It is a film that will entertain, but won't allow for too much out of the box thinking.