David (Luke Wilson) and Amy Fox (Kate Beckinsale) are well and truly lost. Driving through the night to Amy's parents' house, David took a short cut off the interstate while his wife was asleep. Now they're stuck in the middle of the woods and their car's developed engine trouble. When Amy wakes up, she's not happy and the last thing this couple needs is something new to fight about.
Thank heavens for the Pinewood Motel! David and Amy can stay there overnight and call a mechanic in the morning. It's quite a lucky break finding a motel in the middle of nowhere. It's a wonder the place stays in business. Especially since the manager is so creepy. And the rooms are so dirty. And the only entertainment available to guests is a stack of horror videos - disturbingly realistic horror videos showing people being murdered by masked men... in rooms that look exactly like the cabins there at the motel.
Don't let the premise scare you off. That's probably why Vacancy hasn't been a box office success - because audiences heard it was about a couple tricked into starring in a snuff movie and assumed it was just another gruesome Hostel knock-off. It's not. This is an old-fashioned suspense thriller with horror trimmings - an unashamed B-movie that tips its hat to Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter. There's violence but little sadism or gore. The nasty stuff is confined to the videotapes the characters watch.
This is an effective little thriller: well-constructed, tightly paced and genuinely scary in places. Hungarian director Nimród Antal, making his Hollywood debut after the arthouse hit Kontroll, proves very adept at creating and maintaining suspense. He's a whiz with a camera and he's also smart enough to know that it takes more than clever direction to make us care.
Vacancy's strongest suit is its two leads. You don't expect to see proper stars in a movie like this, yet that's what we get in the casting of Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale. You don't expect fleshed-out, grown-up characters, yet screenwriter Mark L Smith gives us two of them, in place of the pretty, screaming college kids that are typical for this genre. David and Amy inspire a hell of a lot more audience sympathy than the interchangeable stars of The Hitcher and Paradise Lost.
If there's one thing lacking, it's strong villains. The bad guys' leader is a one-dimensional scummy pervert and his henchmen are no more than masked sadists. It might have been more interesting if we'd known more about them and their operation. Presumably they're making money from selling the snuff videos?
That's the only serious criticism I can make however. Vacancy's a simple, unassuming little shocker that has only one ambition: to keep you on the edge of your seat for eighty-five minutes. Job done.