“I dreamed you were trying to kill me.” When Amy (Kate Beckinsale) wakes, her husband David (Luke Wilson) is driving. They’re on a dark road in the proverbial middle of nowhere, as he’s taken a turn off the interstate while she was asleep. She wakes up annoyed, as he’s also taken a rather abrupt spin almost off the road to avoid hitting a raccoon. “Better to kill us,” she says, “Than get a little roadkill on the car.”
As you might guess from these first few minutes of Nimród Antal’s Vacancy, Amy and David aren’t on the best of terms. They appear to be willing to argue about everything, from his use of “trucker pills” to drive through the night and her use of a prescription “cocktail” to knock herself out. In fact, they’re on the verge of splitting, owing to a not-quite-explained recent tragedy in which they lost their young son. While David tends to like to talk about the kid—say, remembering the way he used to dance even when there was no music—Amy shuts down. She has, after all, just dreamed that during their previous hours, spent at her parents’ anniversary party, David displayed remarkable anger, even tried to strangle her. Whether she’s projecting or he’s seriously that angry beneath his amiable affect, you’ll never know. Because they soon walk into much more serious trouble than their impending divorce.
This would be the titular vacancy. After their car breaks down, they find themselves stuck at a ratty motel, without cell phone service, with roaches in the bathroom, where they confront a determinedly odious desk clerk, Mason (Frank Whaley). The plot goes where you know it will, as the night turns increasingly bad, each bad choice leading to another bad one. But as much as each of these jutting moments is no surprise, together they form an efficient genre picture. Vacancy knows exactly what it is: 80 minutes of mostly entertaining tension (this helped enormously by the performers and the camera’s willfully weird turns), punctuated by violence engineered by a creep using criminally outdated technology: videocassettes and blinking-red camera lens barely hidden inside vents.
The datedness is thematic. The film opens with a bracingly throwback opening credits sequence, with the type whizzing and spinning in hard angles, stark colors (red, black, yellow), and set to a terrific ‘60s-style score (like very late, reenergized Hitchcock). But Amy and David don’t quite act like old school victims - they think their way through seemingly impossible situations, again and again—and that gives the film just enough verve that it nearly overcomes its rehashed plot.
As soon as David and Amy try to settle into their room—the “honeymoon suite,” upgraded for free, as no one else is staying at the motel—than someone begins pounding on the walls and doors, loudly. No matter how fast David gets to the door or pounds back on the wall, the noise only gets bigger, the door shaking harder. Just when this crisis appears over, David notices something odd about the proffered entertainment—a pile of videotapes left in the room, seemingly randomly—is in fact a series of clips set in the very room they now occupy. And oh dear, the action is snuff: masked marauders enter the room, repeatedly, and knife and beat the sitting duck victims with particular vehemence. It’s like they’ve watched Henry (of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) watching himself home-invade a few too many times. It begins to dawn on David that this is an especially bad motel room. He and Amy begin to fret, and then they scheme.
It’s not the most original idea, that the harrowing leads a couple to appreciate one another in ways they never had before (“I’m sorry,” he says sincerely, “I’m the one that got off the interstate”). Their stalkers—the men in the videos—carry knives and lurk outside windows. They’re slasher movie clichés, not quite having fun inducing terror, but apparently given over to it.
With no phone, no car, and no civilization in sight, the couple tries again and again to escape, each time cornered or jumped. This means Amy and David must return again and again to the Terrible Place, where they anticipate the gruesome fate they’ve seen on the videotapes. That is, they become both spectators and spectacles to be, for a movie more horrible than they could have imagined. And so they also stand in for you, and perhaps suggest that all the good fun you might be having as a viewer is worth rethinking.
As contrived and ordinary as Amy and David’s situation turns (they tearfully reunite in jeopardy, potential saviors don’t work out, every door leads to another yucky room), the movie maintains a nervous pace and lively look, comprised of skewed angles, ooky lighting, and all sorts of handheld commotion. Neat in its own grisly way, Vacancy delivers what it promises.