Judging by what I've said so far, you probably think I'm heading into pan territory. Nope. I actually liked this totally unoriginal film.
Vacancy is no genre classic by any means, but it does manage a good sense of terror and dread for the majority of its running time. With "everyman" Luke Wilson and the splendid Kate Beckinsale in the leads, you have decent company. Throw in an emaciated Frank Whaley as a hotel manager with a penchant for snuff films, and you have something pretty scary.
The setup is very familiar: A bickering couple is taking a road trip, and the man decides to take a shortcut in the middle of the night. A raccoon camps out in the road and nearly causes an accident, doing some noticeable damage to the car. (It's making some bumpy noises as they drive.) They pull off at an isolated gas station where a seemingly pleasant backwoods type allegedly helps with the engine. They get back on the road, breaking down for good this time, and opting for a room at the sleazy Pinewood Motel.
All of the disgusting old hotel clichés apply to the Pinewood. Big cockroaches, brown water and a toilet bowl that will eat through your skin if your butt touches its lethal seat are among its amenities. The two try to make the best of it, and Wilson's character settles down to watch some of the beat-up videos atop the TV set.
Turns out the videos aren't leftover porn, but snuff films produced in the very room they're occupying. Now, you might ask: Why would people who intend to make a snuff film with hotel residents allow their prospective prey to know the secret of their likely demise? Who cares? It makes for some very scary moments, and it certainly helps to get the threatened duo all worked up for the oncoming confrontation.
For the majority of its running time, the film is essentially two people trying to barricade doors, scurrying through underground caverns and running around a lot. Wilson and Beckinsale play fear well, and their sad backstory--their son died in an accident, and they're getting a divorce--gives them a little depth. Again, Vacancy won't be taking home prizes for originality. In fact, the overfamiliarity helps to make things funny in a strange sort of way.
Wilson, taking a dramatic detour from his usual comedic roles, has a sad whininess about him that makes him such a likable dope. Beckinsale, no stranger to horror, does a good job portraying flawed strength.
Whaley's sicko pervert owes a little to Norman Bates, the off-kilter hotel clerk from Hitchcock's Psycho. Director Nimród Antal (oh, Antal, you must've suffered so on the playground with that name) shows some scary violence, but he doesn't overdo it with the gore. I guess he figured seeing people on a dingy video screen screaming and trying to writhe away from masked attackers was unpleasant enough.
The film gets a few demerits for its rushed ending. As for the ambiguity of the finale, I'm quite OK with it. Filmmakers often feel they have to tie everything up with a tight little bow, and this one chooses something a little more loose. Still, the overall ending needed to be meatier.
The film almost seems to have an attitude that it's just trying to do a good job with a familiar concept. It requires a low amount of brain activity from its viewer. Vacancy just wants to be an entertaining genre exercise with decent scares, and it succeeds admirably, if not overwhelmingly.