To hell with marriage counseling. According to director Nimrod Antal and newcomer screenwriter Mark L. Smith, nothing will fix a failed marriage faster than trapping the dysfunctional couple in a Roach Motel (“couples check in but they don’t check out”) where they’re slated to star in a snuff movie. At least, that’s the message sent out by their no-frills horror flick, Vacancy.
Despite the premise’s inescapable associations with Hitchcock’s Psycho, the results have more in common with Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive (1977)—minus most of the fun and attempts at social commentary, and all of the man-eating alligator. Certainly Neville Brand’s homicidal motelier in that film—or Jim Siedow’s entrepreneurial cannibal chef in Hooper’s Chainsaw Massacre films—has more in common with Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates than Frank Whaley’s (World Trade Center) character in this film, a twitchy motel manager/snuff pornographer named Mason. Moreover, the bulk of Vacancy plays like a less involving version of the last 20 minutes of John Dahl’s entertainingly nasty Joy Ride (2001).
Even so, Vacancy isn’t a total washout. And it must have delighted Screen Gems—the expense of B-list stars Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale to one side—in its incredible cheapness, since the studio specializes in smaller-budget films of this genre. Other than bit parts for a truck driver (TV actor Mark Casella) and a policeman (TV actor David Doty)—plus a couple of nameless killers (Ethan Embry and Scott G. Anderson) usually wearing masks—this is a three-man show. (The movie credits more folks playing snuff victims in Mason’s previous video works than actual characters in the film.) The only sets are the motel rooms, the office and a tunnel. That’s about it—apart from destroying a couple cars, a phone booth and a motel in need of tearing down anyway. Truly can it be said that the film spares every expense imaginable.
On the plus side, the film kind of works on its own limited level—at least once it gets down to the business at hand. Granted, the movie’s only 83 minutes long, so they had to do something to fill the time, but the setup of getting our menaced couple to the motel seems to take forever. This mostly consists of the pair squabbling while they drive, and that might have been OK if the dialogue were brighter or the characters more likeable. Neither is the case. However, once the carnage gets underway, things pick up. The shock effects aren’t bad, and it’s nice to see a thriller of this sort that doesn’t lovingly linger over torture for its own sake. It’s also odd, since this is a movie predicated on nothing but torture porn. A case could be made that Vacancy critiques both its own genre and its target audience, but that is crediting it with far more intellect than I suspect it deserves. The best that can be said is that it is what it is, and is competent at being that. Rated R for brutal violence and terror, brief nudity and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke