Vacancy (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Vacancy is a nicely compact, tense thriller that loses a little of its punch as a result of a rushed, generic ending. For the most part, the English-language debut of Nimrod Atal (Kontroll) offers a strong sense of atmosphere and escalating suspense. It's more interested in generating dread than offering cheap "boo!" moments and/or splattering the screen with gore. There is a sense that the final scenes may have undergone some meddling, although it's unclear at what stage of the filmmaking process this may have occurred. Whatever the case, the climax isn't up to the same level as much of what preceded it.

In his novel Mexico Set, Len Deighton writes the following: "If you see anything in the road, drive over it. Too many people get killed…swerving to avoid eyes they see shining in the headlights." That's advice David Fox (Luke Wilson) has never heard. While on a road trip with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Amy (Kate Beckinsale), David tries to avoid a raccoon in the road and ends up damaging his car. After the vehicle conks out, the quarrelsome couple must hike more than a mile to arrive at a lonely roadside motel that would make the Bates establishment seem welcoming. The attendant (Frank Whaley) is creepy, but meeting him is only the start of a very bad night. The TV in their room can't get an over-the-air signal but there are some video tapes. Instead of providing David with his hoped-for porn, they show home-made snuff films. With a start, David recognizes that they were made in the room he and Amy are in. That's when the banging on the walls begins and the frightening guys in masks show up outside.

Vacancy takes its time setting things up, allowing us to get to know David and Amy. These two are relatively normal people, not the dumb idiots that often populate this kind of movie. When the movie opens, their marriage is pretty much over, but there's nothing like a near-death experience to bring two people closer. There is no guarantee that either of them will survive to see the end credits. One of the strengths of Vacancy is that Atal never tips his hand. Until the final 15 minutes, the film is not predictable and there's a sense that the protagonists may not make it out in one piece, if they make it out at all.

The movie plays on common human fears: loud noises in the night, a ringing phone with no one at the other end, claustrophobia, rats and roaches, and a sense of profound isolation. Atal allows his cinematographer, the veteran Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction), to deepen the sense of impending doom. Every shot is carefully composed to enhance the suspense. There are some masterful moments, perhaps none more ominous than those in which David and Amy are harassed by banging on the doors and walls. The viewer can almost taste the terror.

Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale handle their "everyperson" roles effectively. I have never been a fan of Wilson in serious roles, but his handling of David works. Beckinsale initially gives us a standoffish, bitchy Amy, but the character grows less abrasive as we work out her backstory and see her interact with her husband. Frank Whaley's motel manager is about as creepy as movie characters get - a kind of cross between Crispin Glover and Steve Buscemi. From the beginning, there's no mystery that this guy is up to no good. If he was behind the desk of a place where I was considering renting a room, I'd start hitchhiking.

At only about 80 minutes, Vacancy is lean and mean. The film doesn't threaten to overstay its welcome and the quickness with which things are concluded doesn't allow the slightly sour aftertaste to linger. For the most part, this movie hits the right notes and gives its audience a dose of white-knuckle tension. Vacancy offers energy and atmosphere and it may result in departing multiplex patrons paying careful attention to Deighton's advice as they make a nighttime drive home.

Vacancy (United States, 2007)

Director: Nimrod Atal
Cast: Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry
Screenplay: Mark L. Smith
Cinematography: Andrzej Sekula
Music: Paul Haslinger
U.S. Distributor: Screen Gems
Run Time: 1:22
U.S. Release Date: 2007-04-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1