VACANCY (Nimród Antal, 2007)
The Pinewood Motel looks like the kind of roadside accommodations where guests are as likely to be murdered as they are to get a good night's rest. In VACANCY David and Amy Fox (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) have no choice but to stay there, though. A shortcut on the local highway to avoid backed up interstate traffic gets them lost. To make matters worse, the car engine conks out, and no mechanics are open at the late hour.
The Foxes are the only people occupying a room for the evening, so the creepy manager Mason (Frank Whaley) upgrades them to the honeymoon suite. It's an ironic place for the unhappy couple to be since their marriage is on its last legs. Their son's death has created a rift between them. The only reason David and Amy are still together is to maintain appearances for her parents' anniversary celebration.
Weird things start happening soon after the Foxes settle into their room. The telephone rings but nobody responds. Someone pounds on the front door and the adjoining one. While the manager follows up on the complaint, David pops in the videotapes atop the TV. The movies show some nasty murders in a familiar place. A quick look around makes him realize that there are multiple cameras hidden in the vents and that the homemade snuff films were shot in their room.
From the nifty Saul Bass-inspired opening credits until the end, VACANCY is persistent in streamlining its thriller tropes. David and Amy's tense relationship and their predicament in the motel are introduced with a few quick and effective brushstrokes before director Nimród Antal hunkers down to the meat of the story. The first scenes in the car are pregnant with enough hostility that it isn't necessary to spell out every last detail of their troubled history. The threat to the Foxes and their response is plainly an allegory for how their marriage can be salvaged. That provides the modicum of a human touch required to engage us in the challenges thrown at them.
The nature of VACANCY'S scenario boxes screenwriter Mark L. Smith into a corner. How do the Foxes escape when they have no vehicle, weapons, knowledge of the area, means to contact the authorities, and ability to have most of their movements unmonitored? Although VACANCY isn't full of surprises, by staying in the moment it keeps the suspense ratcheted up. Strangely, the film isn't as claustrophobic as it has the potential to be, but Antal massages the set-up so that it's hard to get comfortable at any point.
VACANCY tingles the spine with nimble pacing and pervasive dread. It isn't drenched in blood, so the brutal bursts of violence are all the more unsettling when depicted. Who needs lots of torn flesh when a place where cell phone signals don't reach and only cash is accepted is far scarier to contemporary viewers?