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ISSUE 120 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 4/27/2007

‘Vacancy’ offers consistent thrills

By Geoff Swanson
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 27, 2007

In “"Vacancy,"” Amy (Kate Beckinsale) and David Fox (Luke Wilson) are returning from an arduous family reunion, on their way to Los Angeles. On their trip, they encounter car problems and inevitably pull into a motel at which Norman Bates could feel right at home. After some awkward exchanges with the owner, they reluctantly decide to spend the night.

Upon viewing some tasteless horror films in the room, David begins to suspect that the murders take place at the motel. Furthermore, he is led to believe that he and Amy are staying in the room in which these events take place. With this initial set-up, “"Vacancy”" wastes no time launching the audience into an engaging, gripping and somewhat macabre story, borrowing sparingly from Alfred Hitchcock’'s "“Psycho"” and managing to side-step many land mines other horror films fail to recognize.

“"Vacancy”" has both strengths and weaknesses. However, the shortcomings don’t seem to affect the narrative as frequently as in other films. The first thought that comes to mind was the movie’s running time. At 85 minutes, the film may move at too brisk a pace for some. At times, it feels like it should be part of a short horror film festival, rather than a stand-alone feature film. The clichés are very apparent as well – the broken-down car, the mysterious stranger, the out-of-range cell phone and the creepy hotel are predictable.

But rather than using those clichés as a crutch for a poor script, the film seems to celebrate their existence. It epitomizes all horror films where the main characters are stranded in creepy locations or encountering mysterious people. The film also fails to successfully flush out the “snuff” film aspect that was so heavily advertised and anticipated. The screen time of these films is very limited and the focus on them is brief. They serve as a fundamental set-up, but after their initial appearance, they fall out of sight and out of mind.

What makes the film much more successful than the average “teen slasher” horror film is, ironically, the absence of teens in the film. In recent years, the most successful horror films (“"The Sixth Sense,”" "“What Lies Beneath,"” "“Stir of Echoes”" and "“Hide and Seek”") have all revolved around families, and in particular, the relationships between adults. In “"Vacancy,"” Amy and David are a married couple one argument away from a divorce.

Unlike an amorous, oblivious teenage couple about to become mincemeat for an axe murderer, David and Amy show a sense of unease that puts them on edge throughout the whole film and translates to tension in the audience while the film builds its suspense.

The build of the film also differs from the main pattern set by modern “slasher” films. Winding up like a Matchbox car, the tension never lets down. Unlike the ups and downs of “slasher” films, where there are multiple apexes of horror, there is a ratchet effect in “"Vacancy,"” where there is no relief and each scene is built upon the previous one.

The other very obvious asset to the film is its relative lack of violence compared to most other modern horror films. In recent years, films such as the “"Saw”" series, "“Hostel,"” “"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake” and “"The Hills Have Eyes"” have lazily resorted to the shock factor to scare their audiences, rather than rely on the old saying, “"It's not the bang that is scary, but rather the anticipation to the bang.”" That's not to say that the film isn't violence free – the violence just seems minimal or practical.

The references to Hitchcock's “"Psycho”" are refreshingly flattering rather than annoying. In “"Disturbia,"” a recent loose remake of Hitchcock’'s “"Rear Window,"” the similarities become annoying and the film loses its intrigue. In “"Vacancy,”" the nods to “"Psycho"” are very slight. The Pinewood Motel is the most obvious example, which, like the Bates Motel, is in serious need of redecorating. The beginning credits also throw back to "“Psycho,"” with its vertical bars violently moving to forceful string instruments.

There are similar references to "“Halloween”" as well, but the film lacks the characters’ emotional dilemmas and their feelings of guilt toward their situations.

In “"Psycho,”" it is Marion'’s (Janet Leigh) moral dilemma over stealing the money, and in “"Halloween,”" it is Laurie'’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) feelings of social inequity. Amy and David do not share this external baggage – their troubled relationship is seemingly repaired through this trial, not manifested by a killer such as Michael Myers or Norman Bates. There is no name given to whoever pursues them and there is no correlation that can be drawn between the characters and their tormentors.

All in all, “"Vacancy"” hits a few high points and is smart enough to stay clear of areas where previous horror movies have failed, like the horrible twist endings in “Identity.” "Vacancy" builds suspense, excludes gratuitous violence and presents characters more likeable than those in the average horror movie. The let down is that the film doesn’'t take any substantial risks. It follows a very linear path, without deviation and stays almost exclusively at the motel. It’s a film that will entertain, but won’t take you too far outside the box.

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