The press booklet for Vacancy describes the main antagonist as a "criminal mastermind," which is not quite the label I'd assign him. A Norman Bates clone played by a decidedly middle-aged Frank Whaley -- trapped in Target with Jennifer Connelly was a long, long time ago -- his master plan seems to be running the front desk of his ramshackle motel while operating a high-risk side business producing VHS torture-porn. With the garage mechanic next door in cahoots, unlucky travelers think they are making a momentary pit stop but end up with mysterious car trouble that leaves them no alternative but to check into a room at the fleapit Hilton. Once inside, it quickly becomes obvious that the room is in fact a makeshift film studio, with cameras jutting out of every corner and a small library of videotapes cluttered around the television, so that the occupants are free to see what's coming next. According to the tapes, what's coming next is forced room invasion, followed by topless wailing, rape on the floor, garroting, knifing and lots of screaming.
Here's why I say its high-risk for the criminals: You've probably assumed, without being told, that once inside the room the victims are locked in, but quite the opposite. They are not only free to enter and leave the room, but the would-be torturers actually take the time to do an extended riff on the 'knock on the door and run away' game before they commit to busting in and getting down to business. This is the part of Vacancy that I found odd to the point of distraction. Let's say that it's you in that motel, instead of Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale, and instead of free HBO on the television, you see camcorder guttings that were clearly filmed in the room you're standing in at that moment. What would possibly compel you to not run for your life, even if down a deserted nighttime road? Eventually, you gotta believe some victim of this long-running scheme is gonna come charging out of that room like an NFL running back, outflank his captors, and jog to freedom.
Putting aside the irregularities of his villain's plan, director Nimrod Antal does deliver some genuinely tense moments in Vacancy and even a couple of shocks -- the torture porn scenes that we see on the motel room television are never anything less than convincing and more intense than what you usually get in today's R-rated horror movies. The close-quarters setup also lends itself to some good acting from the usually stiff-as-a-board Beckinsale and the whimsical slow-talker Wilson. Especially entertaining are the film's opening moments, with the couple, who are in the midst of a divorce, engaging in a bitter squabble. That said, the entire tease of the first act -- that this whole situation is eventually going to devolve into Last House on the Left -- is pretty much a non-starter because of the casting of Beckinsale. This is not an actress who is suddenly going to hang up her 'ass-kicking' shoes in favor of playing the helpless victim of a brutal rape squad. Kate Beckinsale's agent isn't reading that script and saying 'How about this one?'
The good news is that you don't really think about that while the movie is happening -- in my case, most of the second-guessing was done long after it was over, which is a good compliment. When Antal is on his game, he catches us up in the moment to moment, knife-edge tension of the crazy situation. Several people are outside the room with knives, biding their time, waiting for you to reach stage-five freak-out mode before they burst in -- what do you do? Vacancy runs a very brief 80-odd minutes, but uses its time wisely, forcing the two blank-faced suburbanites at the center of the story to keep coming up with new ideas to escape before the bad guys decide to enter and yell 'action!' One memorable moment comes when they peep out their window and think they're going to be saved by a trucker who has arrived at the motel. Turns out he's just a movie fan -- torture-rape-kill movies, that is. He's stopping in to buy a box of the new releases.
With the state of movies today, you have to give credit to the ones where it seems like the cast and crew tried, and I could feel the effort in this one. I never felt like I was being ripped off with Vacancy -- except maybe at the end. I'm not going to give away the ending of the film except to say that the end result hardly seems physically possible. If I were a betting man, I'd bet that this is one of those films that shot an ending that made sense for the film, and then the studio stepped in and put a stop to all that, ordering up a new, ludicrous ending that would send the audience out on a different note. Shame, because an ending that played fair would have actually gone a long way towards pushing Vacancy up the scale a notch, from 'eh, not bad but it had flaws,' to 'eh, not a bad movie, that one.' Still, if horror-thrillers are your cup of tea, this one is worth a turn.