"Vacancy" has a barebones plot, no major twists or revelations, and follows a point-A-to-point-B path with few detours. It's a study in narrative minimalism, really, slowly but surely escalating with a sense of dread that, once it gets going, never lets up. With A-list stars Luke Wilson (2006's "My Super Ex-Girlfriend
") and Kate Beckinsale (2006's "Click
") gamely getting down and dirty in a genre neither is used to, and director Nimrod Antal auspiciously orchestrating a string of tension-drenched set-pieces for them to jump into, the 82-minute "Vacancy" doesn't have a moment to spare. By not allowing the film to get bogged down in needless exposition, explanations and motives, Antal and screenwriter Mark L. Smith grab hold of the viewer's jugular and cook up the most compact, well-made suspenser of the year so far.
David (Luke Wilson) and Amy Fox (Kate Beckinsale) are a bickering couple on the verge of ending their marriage and struggling to come to grips with the recent loss of a child. While on one final road trip together, a desolate backways shortcut and a subsequent spot of car trouble forces them to check into the grungy, run-down Pinewood Motel. Let's put it this way: if forced into sleeping overnight either there or at the Bates Motel, I'd hedge my bets with mama's boy Norman. David and Amy have no sooner gotten to their room that they are assaulted by violent banging on the doors. Reassured by motel manager Mason (Frank Whaley) that the culprit is probably just a drunk teenager or bum playing a trip on them, David returns to the room, pops in a couple of videotapes, and discovers something much more horrific: real-life snuff films, shot by surveillance camera in the very motel room he and Amy are in.
"Vacancy" promptly gets things going with a superb opening titles sequence inspired by Saul Bass and featuring a spine-tingling orchestral score from Paul Haslinger (2006's "Turistas
") that reminds of something Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock might have collaborated on. From there, the picture draws the viewer in with a deliberately-paced setup of characters and their own isolation before plowing full speed ahead. The ceaselessly fast and frightening second and third acts rarely ease up and, lest the viewer think too long about the improbable last scene, director Nimrod Antal flashes to the end credits (also paying tribute to Saul Bass' designs, thus arriving full circle from the beginning) before one has time to contemplate what a disappointment the last two minutes are.
Inhabiting the roles of David and Amy, Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale are put through physical and emotional wringers as they are stalked from almost beginning to end by two savage masked killers lurking around every corner. It couldn't have been the most relaxing of movie shoots, but Wilson, who is not usually known for dramatic parts, and Beckinsale invest the entirety of their energy into believably meeting the demands. Amidst the crying and running and fighting and tunneling through rat-infested underground caverns, these two actors are able to make David and Amy real people rather than dumb slasher flick fodder. As might be expected, being faced with a reciprocal life-or-death situation can do wonders for a marriage on the rock. Perfecting the role of a nerdy but threatening sicko running a black-market snuff film business on the side, Frank Whaley (2006's "World Trade Center
") skin-crawlingly relishes his scenes with the voracious appetite of a vampire on the prowl for blood.
"Vacancy" is reminiscent of a long list of horror-thrillersamong them, 1960's "Psycho
," 2001's "Joyride
," 2003's "Identity
," and most unlikely but unmistakably, 1983's "Mountaintop Motel Massacre"but is lean, tight and relentless all on its own. In a story dealing in violent exploitation but not dwelling upon it, director Nimrod Antal and cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (2000's "American Psycho") leave it to their masterfully compelling and innovative use of visual compositions to bring out the scare factor. The aforementioned ending is the one sore spot of the film; it feels like a cop-out to what has come before it. Problematic finale aside, "Vacancy" is just the ticket for genre fans starved for a movie that actually thrills. It does that in spades, and is the first picture in many months for which use of the terms "edge-of-your-seat" and "pulse-pounding" is not hyperbole.