In Dead Calm (1989), a couple grieving the tragic death of their son are pulled back together when a charismatic lunatic tries to murder them on their ocean-bound yacht. In The Descent (2005), after her husband and son die in a horrific accident, a woman confronts her deepest psychic trauma by waging primal battle with cave-dwelling mutants. In Syriana (2005), a man whose young son has recently drowned faces his pain by championing an idealistic prince embroiled in a violent Middle Eastern dynastic dispute. In Babel (2006), a middle-class American couple mourning the death of their young son are shaken out of their crippling sorrow when one of them is shot through the neck in the hinterlands of Morocco.

It is hard not to see a pattern here. America may be the land of therapy, where it is standard practice for all manner of personal problems to be subjected to the 'talking cure' - but in the shadow world of American cinema, grieving and loss tend to call for rather more drastic measures if there is to be any hope for recovery. So when, near the beginning of Vacancy, David Fox (Luke Wilson) and his soon-to-be-ex wife Amy (Kate Beckinsale) interrupt their road-trip bickering just long enough for some painful exchanges about the recent accidental death of their young son Charlie, you can be sure that there is something truly terrible waiting round the bend to jumpstart them out of their cycle of woe and recrimination. There may be obvious tensions between David and Amy, but tension of an altogether different kind is signaled by the film's opening credit sequence, with Paul Haslinger's Herrmannesque score playing over animated titles that recall the opening of Hitchcock's Vertigo.

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Soon the couple's car has broken down in the dark, in the middle of nowhere and well outside of the range of Amy's cellphone. After a gas station mechanic (Ethan Embry) proves more friendly than helpful, the pair reluctantly decide to check in as the sole guests of the adjacent Pinewood Motel. The manager (Frank Whaley) stops watching his horror video long enough to direct them to the filthy 'honeymoon suite', and they try to settle down for the night - but the mysterious noises coming from the room next door, as well as the terrifying collection of videos left in their own room, make it clear that their every move is being monitored by malevolent forces intent on doing far more than merely going bump in the night. In the cat-and-mouse that ensues, the couple's very lives are at stake - but at least, for the first time since Charlie's death, their minds are focussed on something else. Who knew mortal peril could be of such therapeutic value?

There are three problems that face Vacancy. The first is that, unlike Hitchcock's masterful motel-set proto-slasher Psycho (1960) from which it so heavily draws (via My Little Eye), Vacancy has been produced at a time when the exigencies of movie-marketing make it near impossible to be unaware of where a film's plot is headed, so that you would have to live in a total media vacuum not to know, at least in rough outline, what awaits the Foxes in their isolated motel. The second is the unavoidable silliness involved in allowing traumatic horror to replace more conventional modes of couple counseling - an absurdity that becomes more pronounced as Vacancy nears its end. And the third is that title, tempting fate by seeming an unashamed advertisement of vapid empty-headedness.

Yet as a solid and unpretentious piece of genre cinema, Vacancy is highly effective. Mark L. Smith's well-trimmed dialogue and the leads' performances quickly establish believable and sympathetic characters, drawing the viewer right in to their terrible predicament. DP Andrzej Sekula bleeds every last drop of tension from Jon Gary Steele's claustrophobic sets. Bucking the current trend whereby films' narratives are stretched to unendurable durations, director Nimrod Antal (Kontroll) brings Vacancy in at under 90 minutes. It is a cracking pace, all thrills and no frills, leaving viewers barely enough time to catch their breath let alone to dwell on the odd hole in the plot.

When David first turns on the room's video player, he claims to be looking for pornography - but it is to Antal's immense credit that he does not, unlike the Eli Roths of this world, succumb to the temptation of turning his viewers into voyeurs and his torture-horror into a new kind of fleshy erotica. Rather, Antal prefers Hitchcockean suspense to grand guignol, and seems content that his film's ideas are no less horrific for being unsensationalised, or even barely shown at all. Only the ending, with its 'therapeutic' resolution, manages to be the wrong side of tepid in a film that is otherwise, for all its graphic restraint, consistently (and pleasingly) shrill in tone.

So while it may be wiser not to check into the Pinewood Motel, Vacancy is certainly well worth checking out.

Reviewed on: 12 Jun 2007
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A young couple take a room in a motel only to discover that they've been set up to star in a snuff film.
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Jennie Kermode **

Director: Nimród Antal

Writer: Mark L. Smith

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry, Scott G. Anderson, Mark Casella, David Doty, Norm Compton, Caryn Mower, Meegan Godfrey, Kym Stys

Year: 2007

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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If you like this, try:

My Little Eye
Snuff Movie