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Vacancy (2007)
Director: Nimrod Antal

review by Paul Higson

Nimrod Antal's Vacancy initially, seemed, not to have much going for it, easily presumed the latest in the ugly trend for torture flicks that the teen sadists have a bloodlust for. What, with the Hollywood penchant for remaking Asian hits it can only be a matter of time before we get Hollywood makeovers on the Guinea Pig series. (Mick Garris' Mermaid in a Manhole, anyone?) Vacancy's certificate 15 is a huge clue that this is not for those kinky for autopsies or with a fetish for abattoir rubber aprons. Vacancy turns out to be a thoroughly honest thriller, a low concept, compact horror ride. In the company of the Sadean school of desperate shocks, a snuff-themed movie is suddenly legitimate teen thrills fare.

Amy and David Fox (Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson) are marrieds on a remote road in the middle of the night and are as lost as their marriage. Coming from a birthday party they have withheld reporting their imminent divorce until a more appropriate occasion. Avoiding a racoon on the road they damage the vehicle and locate a garage for repairs. 'Fixed', the car doesn't travel much further and are forced to return and take a room at the motel. Frank Whaley plays Mason, the manager of the motel, and as a friend at the screening observed he bears a remarkable likeness for Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. This made the viewing experience all the more bizarre, so from here on in, 'Ned' it is.

The motel still carries evidence of its origins down to a 4th July 1946 opening. The motel design is a fantastic throwback perhaps copied directly out of a Doris Day and Rock Hudson film. Here, though, it has been grubbied up. The motel is filthy, an observation expressed repeatedly by the characters. This could be read as uncertainty in the director that the viewer has picked up on the conditions, though there is no fear of that. The characters can therefore be seen to belabour the point because that is what they would naturally do in that situation. Cleverly, a level of revulsion is now in place. The decor makes it uncomfortable to look at and you constrict under the scumminess having transplanted your good self into the premise. The production design does not go too far into the extraordinarily gruesome as did the house in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake or The House Of 1000 Corpses, which results in an surreality that distances the audience from the threat. Rooms like this are imaginable... are all too real.

Antal must now fill his small film with incidental horrors. The couple are tormented for several minutes with a game of knock a door run at the front and conjoining motel room doors. Amy repeatedly implores her husband that they leave but David takes it as a challenge to him personally and will not back down. With no television they feed unlabelled videocassettes into the player and find only images of murder and terrorism in a room quickly identifiable as the one they are booked into. A smart montage cutting between the images on the television screen and the decoration in the room mounts alongside their realisation of the situation they are in.

It is also the cue for a number of flaws. They locate all of the cameras but do not immediately disable them. When they discover a trapdoor in the bathroom it is not explained how the intruder was able to replace the bath mat neatly over the trap on his retreat. Ned and his accomplices have been making snuff movies at the motel for some time. The scenario is fundamentally plausible, though the distribution network and years of secrecy less so. No matter how many flaws the film kicks up those niggles can be chucked in the back of the truck as the drama races un-stoppingly onwards.

Catching the film on its first weekend, this audience was small but perfectly behaved and responded well. When paying customers jump, scream and at one point shout at Kate Beckinsale to 'Get out!' you can be sure the filmmakers are doing something right. The name of Nimrod Antal did not register at the time of the screening and had it done so, as the director who's last film was the fantastic Kontroll, then it would have only taken a second to bump my expectations from low to very high and the film would have disappointed. The low expectations pay off. Read Peter Bradshaw and Ian Johns before visiting and let them convince you they are right and I am wrong. Of the players Beckinsale and Wilson are perfectly unassuming. Frank Whaley, has the snuff entrepreneur, has seemingly skipped his thirties, though the films he is best known for were made ten years ago, so maybe he is not the only one. The young character actor cut down in the opening of Pulp Fiction and soon after the tormentor of Kevin Spacey in Swimming With Sharks never settled down into celluloid married life and has bypassed it into creepy fucker roles.

The victims (the couple) are outnumbered in the story, which is the major switch here on the thriller genre rules. You can be overrun by zombies and aliens but psycho-killers in films normally operate alone or in twos and seem to be able to overpower and slaughter a house full of jocks and lovelies. The French film Them, released last month, coincidently operated the same premise with a couple under siege and outnumbered. Viewers of both sexes immediately import respectively into the only male or female available and you are in their shoes for the whole of the movie experience. It gets personal. One of the couple will appear not quite to make it to the end but there is the clear stink of preview audiences calling the shots again resulting in a pussy of a reprise. It does at least relieve us on one of those rubbish the-bogeyman-is-still-out-there fade-outs that Hollywood reckons the only other way out of a film. A small blessing, though you will be right to feel cheated. A good, claustrophobic little thriller, an easy does it from Antal, but he has at least survived his American debut with some dignity.
Vacancy

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