At root, Vacancy is a horror movie about two characters who gradually become aware that they’re two characters within a horror movie, but Antal keeps the tone straight-faced, blessedly avoiding any Scream-style, self-aware cheekiness. Packed full of conventional set-ups, the film stars Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale as a married couple on the verge of divorce, on their way home from Beckinsale’s mother’s home on a side road, having made the fundamental mistake of getting off the interstate. (Never get off the main road!) A lot of “we’re not lost!” bickering ensues, then the car breaks down, the mechanic can’t fix it till morning and there’s a nearby motel with no other guests, only a creepy night clerk (a mustachioed Frank Whaley).
Beckinsale refers to their stay in the filthy room they rent as their “one last great adventure together,” but she is unaware of the real adventure about to unfold! In a well-crafted sequence of Wyler/Toland-esque close-ups—the film is full of artsy angles and is gorgeously lit, courtesy cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, of Pulp Fiction fame—Wilson starts popping-in video tapes lying on top of their room’s television set, finding a series of gruesome snuff films that he slowly begins to realize have been filmed in the very room he and his wife occupy. With hardly a moment to think, the events that start off the tapes begin to happen to them: there’s deafening banging on the wall; the power flicks on and off; the door, chained shut, rattles on its hinges.
The couple manages to stave off their murder long enough for the film to become a home-invasion thriller, albeit one set in a very cramped home. (It may be the honeymoon suite, but it’s still a motel room.) The recent French film Ils (Them), a similarly metacinematic home-invasion horror flick, may be a little more clever and executed a bit more tautly, but, especially for a Hollywood flick, Vacancy is surprisingly smart and tight, clocking in at only a few minutes over eighty.
Wilson, whose usual easygoing and deadpan comic style allows him to easily disappear into an everyman horror-protagonist, finds the time to go through some of the tapes, looking for mistakes past victims have made and essentially parsing the horror conventions, searching for a way to survive. “It’s not enough that they rob and kill these people,” he says pitiably, “they want to watch it, too.” Yeah, America, what’s the matter with you? When a truck driver turns up, Wilson and Beckinsale bang on the window of their locked-room as though it’s the movie screen, begging for help until, when the driver slowly approaches their room and the couple sees the killers following from behind, they reverse roles to become the typical spectator, shouting the standard horror movie response: “look out, behind you!”
The filmmakers aren’t quite able to keep up with the film’s postmodernist angle, and what began as a sort of commentary on horror movie violence slips into an exercise in mere horror movie violence, but Vacancy, still, is the product of strong filmmaking, and it’s short and well-paced enough to go by quickly and stirringly, without ever getting too full of itself.