It is not wise to expect much from a film about a married couple who are forced to stay in a creepy, dilapidated motel after their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. That sparse set-up is as old as time, the subject of campfire stories for as long as there have been campfires (or as long as there have been cars and motels, anyway).
Yet “Vacancy” uses the simplicity of that premise to its advantage, reducing the story to its purest elements and using them to scare the poop out of us. Written by newcomer Mark L. Smith and directed by relatively uncredited Hungarian filmmaker Nimrod Antal (yes, Nimrod), “Vacancy” is lean and efficient. It has only five speaking roles, it covers a span of just a few hours, and it runs barely 80 minutes without the credits. If it were on TV, I don’t even know where you’d put the commercials without interrupting something. It has no downtime.
It stars Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale as David and Amy Fox, a bickering, soon-to-be-divorced couple on a long car trip back from Amy’s parents’ anniversary party. Now their car has malfunctioned on the back roads of Podunk, and the only buildings in sight are a closed gas station and a motel that probably looked very sleek and modern in 1950.
With no choice other than sleeping in the car a mile down the road where they left it, the Foxes check in with Mason (Frank Whaley), the squirrelly, bespectacled hotel manager whose behavior is weird enough to warrant a double-take but not so bad that it requires fleeing the premises. He sets them up in room 4, where they are soon harassed by a pounding on their front door and on the wall in adjoining room 3.
Then there are the video tapes. The room has a VCR and a stack of homemade tapes in which people are ambushed and killed in hotel rooms that look … just … like … THIS ONE! David searches the room feverishly. Sure enough: cameras everywhere, in the air-conditioning vents and behind the baseboards. The tapes are a warning, or a threat, or something. Surely David and Amy will meet the same fate as the people in the videos unless they act quickly.
A sort of nervous tension has been building through all this, and now it kicks into high gear and lasts for most of the rest of the film. David and Amy are set upon by men in blank-faced masks, who try to get into the room while the terrified couple tries to find an escape route or a working phone line. (You get no cell phone reception out here, obviously. How will filmmakers isolate their characters 10 years from now, when there is literally no place in America where you can’t get a signal?)
Antal shoots everything in an energetic but restrained manner, eschewing the rapid-fire editing and over-zealous sound effects that many directors use nowadays in their thrillers. Anxiety and dread are created by the situations and by the characters’ responses to them, not by having bad guys jump out from behind doors while the soundtrack goes “CHWING!” Antal knows he has a good thing going here, and he doesn’t have to rely on gimmicks to sell it.
It’s hard to come up with a good ending for movies like this. If you throw in too many twists, you run the risk of seeming ludicrous. If you don’t throw in enough twists, the audience goes, “That’s it?” I won’t say which route “Vacancy” takes, only that, after a nearly flawless 75-minute routine, it doesn’t quite stick the landing. But it gets the ol’ heart pounding well enough before that, so maybe I should just be glad I survived it at all.
B (1 hr., 25 min.; )