'Vacancy' is chilling, but ultimately leaves viewers vacant

This new horror thriller offers plenty of scares, but suffers from thin characters and a tired plot.

"Is Nick Nolte still passed out on our lawn, honey?"

**½ out of *****

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece “Psycho,” bank teller Marion Crane checks into the Bates Motel, managed by the shy but likeable Norman Bates, and never checks out. Now, replace Marion Crane with a troubled married couple; replace the rich, sadistic villainy of Norman Bates with a slightly nerdy, severely underdeveloped snuff filmmaker; finally, replace any semblance of plot or meaning with a trite story, a slew of cliché’ scares and one of the worst endings in recent horror cinema, and you’ve got yourself a flick called “Vacancy.”

Nimród Antal, director of 2003’s “Kontroll,” helms “Vacancy,” a film that is at once frightening and yet completely unfulfilling. David Fox (Luke Wilson) and his wife Amy (Kate Beckinsale), a couple deeply impaired by the death of their young son (a dead child conflict – how unique), find themselves stranded in a strange, run-down motel when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere.

They soon discover that the entire motel is a snuff film studio, with cameras in every corner capturing their terror, panic and eventual murder. Determined not to fall victim to the murderous motel filmmakers, the couple begins searching desperately for a way out – while the killers search for a way in.

“Vacancy” is a rudimentary hotel slasher, utilizing the very basic of overused plots. But unlike many recent horror films, “Vacancy” doesn’t rely on gore and violence to terrify. In fact, it almost feels like an entirely different breed of thriller, set apart from the typical Hollywood schlock like “Saw” and “Hostel.” As a horror fan and film purist, it was refreshing to watch a film that is genuinely terrifying, if only for a few minutes.

But that’s the problem: “Vacancy” just doesn’t keep the scares going through its entirety. The opening sequence is entirely too tedious (Antal tried desperately to cram all the character development he could into the first 20 minutes, apparently), and the last 30 minutes had me rolling my eyes in the wake of its numerous Hollywood contrivances. Roughly 1/3 of “Vacancy” is legitimately scary, while the rest is tired and meandering. I was startled the first few times a dark figure ran across the frame, but after a while, I simply came to expect it.

Sadly, the film makes no real attempt at amping up the terror or progressing the plot. It’s repetitive scare after repetitive scare, killer after killer popping out of the darkness in a stale effort to surprise the audience. After 20 minutes of seemingly endless chase and escape, the film lost its novelty and transcended into B-movie slasher territory.

And don’t even get me started on the character development. David and Amy spend the entire movie bickering about this and that, never really reaching a turning point if only on a crazy, terrified whim (“I love you, but only because we’re about to be dismembered”). The killers, namely the motel manager, Mason (Frank Whaley), are used as simple tools for fright, rather than real characters. I mean, Mason is essentially a poor man’s Norman Bates with a mustache and a penchant for camcorders. What could have been developed into a cool psychological thriller, expanding upon the motives of the killers, ultimately left me wanting more.

However, the film moves along briskly, clocking in at a taut 80 minutes. It’s short and brutal, and I most definitely enjoyed it for what it was worth. It’s not breaking new ground like last year’s “The Descent,” or renewing the genre like “28 Days Later,” but “Vacancy” is infinitely better produced than most of the sour PG-13 horror fair currently clogging our multiplexes. Hell, it was easily 20 times better than “See No Evil.”


  1. man, there's so many horror flicks, even in the past couple years it's hard to keep track of all of them.

    from your review it sounds like vacancy is pretty un-original.

  2. It sounds like it's simply better than the lowest common denominator ("See No Evil"? Come on). I didn't plan on seeing it anyways. Honestly, the horror genre really needs a boost.


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