Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Vacancy - Review by Sandra Dupuy

Directed by Nimrod Antal
Written by Mark L. Smith
Runtime: 1 hour 25 minutes
Certificate: 15

Vacancy… what an unfortunate name for a mucky thriller that’s about as exciting as Noel Edmonds and as scary as the Andrex puppy. The only novelty Hungarian filmmaker Nimrod Antal brings to the psycho-drama scene is an unconventional way of mending one’s broken marriage. Forget about couple counselling or sympathetic friends. Check into the sleaziest motel you can find, battle a few masked psycho-killers, and you’re sorted! There’s nothing better than a little shock therapy to start afresh, as our two heroes will learn.

An uninspired Luke Wilson (who would blame him?) and queen of the B’s Kate Beckinsale, as bland as ever, play David and Amy Fox, a sniping couple on the verge of divorce. On the way back from a family celebration, David stupidly strays off the Interstate in the middle of nowhere. Predictably, the car dies about a mile away from the Pinewood Motel, which sounds rustic and cosy.

Well, they’re in for a nasty surprise as the dinky place turns out to be Hell Motel, and its twitchy manager Mason (Frank Whaley) a 21st century Norman Bates. No sooner have they settled in their dingy roach-infested honeymoon suite (courtesy of the evil Mason) than they discover videos showing other guests being murdered in the very room they’re sleeping in. A cat-and-mouse game ensues between the Foxes (seriously, who thought of that name?) and a trio of murderers whose business is shooting snuff movies.

The film’s premise is quite scary, and seeing our trapped couple watching other people murdered “for real”, makes for a disturbing experience, akin to the effect created by J.T.Petty‘s docu-horror S&Man. The most terrifying aspect of Vacancy is indeed the baddies’ sordidness, as they sell their snuff films to local truckers after revelling in perpetrating the murders on camera and watching them. It could actually happen. It probably does.

The first half of Vacancy is fairly fun and claustrophobic enough, thanks to 2003 Kontroll’s director’s flashy mise-en-scene. Antal manages to keep a reasonable pace and skilfully contains the action into limited settings, complete with creepy crawlies and stained bombastic 70’s wallpapers, enhanced by grainy and contrasted shots.

But Antal is too busy engineering clichéd car-chases or easy end-solving gunfights to really reflect upon the voyeuristic content of his material, and the moral complexity of what violence does to victims and executioners. Despite weirdo-on-duty Whaley’s creepily effective efforts to spice up Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale’s insipidness, the second half descends into an abyss of silliness and the characters’ behaviour becomes increasingly nonsensical, in order to keep the movie going, presumably.

What made Kontroll so atmospheric and chilling was a fast-paced narrative centred around Budapest subway’s own little world peppered by peculiar inhabitants. With Vacancy however, Antal’s obviously chosen the wrong vehicle, reserving most of his energy for the snuff-movie loops playing on monitors throughout the motel, and padding the rest of the film with a plethora of rip-offs from respected horror classics, from Psycho (Vacancy’s slick opening credits and strident score an homage to Saul Bass and Bernard Herrmann) to Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and even the cheerfully nasty Roadkill.

There’s nothing wrong with stealing from the best, as long as it’s cleverly done. However, Antal and his team don’t seem to understand that what made Psycho and Halloween so riveting and repulsive was the deep connections drawn between the psychological subtext and the surface scares. While Hitchcock and Carpenter’s slasher thrillers re-defined the contemporary horror monster as a black hole of repressed sexual desire and tormented psyche, Antal barely manages to sustain the tension for 83 dire minutes, offering no insight into the motivation behind Mason’s psychosis. His killers are pathetic parodies of Michael Myers, ever shallow and never truly frightening, and there’s no correlation between David and Amy’s marital problems and the events set in the motel. The real vacancy truly lies in the film’s creators’ brains.

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