Saturday, January 10, 2009
Directed by Nimród Antal
Written by Mark L. Smith
Forty-five minutes into Vacancy the idea pops into my head:
"Couples Therapy - Extreme Weekend"
From that moment on I watch for signs that this tiny thriller is a new addition to the self-help horror category occupied by The Game. Not that that would be good…
The film starts with a classic set-up: A husband and wife on the road at night, heading for a visit with the wife's family. They don't get along, and we soon find out why. They are in mourning for their son, a toddler seen in photos but mercifully not represented in flashback.
Blame and guilt and regret and the wife's cranky predisposition explain why she's on happy drugs and he's taken an alternate route to make the grim ride shorter. The cliché about men not being able to follow directions on a map provides an excuse for stopping at a lonely gas station where the price signs haven't changed in decades. The friendly attendant (uh-oh) checks under the hood and tells the couple they are at least thirty miles off track. He's such a nice guy you just know you'll see him again.
A mile down the road, of course, the car dies. So Mr. and Mrs. Imminent Divorce walk back and try the seedy motel near the now-closed gas station. The manager is both greasy and shifty, but he assures the skittish couple that the bloodcurdling screams from his office are on TV. So they check in.
Try to recall the most crummy motel room you've ever encountered. One so layered in grime, and pulsing with cockroach life, you wouldn't dare touch anything. The only feature with any promise: a pile of unmarked VHS tapes.
Hubby tries to kill time watching what first appears to be a slasher flick then possibly a snuff film. Then he notices that the backdrop looks disgustingly familiar. In fact, all of the films were shot in the room he and his wife now occupy.
This is when things are supposed to heat up, but they don't. Because this is also the point at which the writer and director run out of ideas. Which is why I start supplying my own:
What if the husband has signed them up for extreme therapy? The motel manager is the counselor, and the situation is designed to bring the wife and husband back together.
What if the husband has hired everyone else in the story to scare his wife and allow him to be a hero?
The deeper into the story we go, the more this makes sense. Everything that goes wrong is the husband's fault. Maybe that's because he's in control. (Hence The Game.) The plan could backfire when the wife figures it out, and then she has to escape not only from the creeps but also from her grief-scarred, insane husband…
So, as much as I appreciate the subtle acting by Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson as the tormented couple, and Frank Whaley as the manager, Vacancy is a disappointment. It lacks an adequate framing device, which would make it more than a thriller about nice people pursued by freaks. And when I can think up a better plot than the filmmaker, I'm about as grumpy as Kate Beckinsale on prescription happy pills.
(originally published S. P. Miskowski 10/29/07 5:55 p.m.)