Vacancy

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This review was written for the theatrical release of "Vacancy."

A couple checking into a desolate motel when their car breaks down is to horror filmmakers what a priest and a rabbi walking into a bar is to stand-up comics: a timeworn setup that must have a terrific punch line to overcome its antiquity. "Vacancy" fails that test with a mediocre payoff. Which is not to say "Vacancy" won't fill seats during its opening weekend.

While the sadism doesn't stoop -- rise? -- to the level of the "Saw" horror-thrillers, "Vacancy" does have a name cast in Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson, so the Screen Gems release should play well to the under-25 crowd that likes a spot of terror on weekend nights. Cineastes might wish, though, that Nimrod Antal, director of the critically praised Hungarian film "Kontroll," might have chosen a more worthy project for his U.S. debut.

Screenwriter Mark L. Smith does attempt to establish psychological underpinnings to his hero-victims during the first 20 minutes. The stranded couple, David (Wilson) and Amy (Beckinsale) Fox, are mired in the unhappy final moments of an unraveled marriage. The unexplained death of their only son has them at each other's throats as the car refuses to work.

What to do but spend a restless night at a dilapidated roadside motel overseen by a creepy, bespectacled manager (Frank Whaley)? All that's missing a neon sign flashing "Bates Motel." Thus, the stage is set for terror as a kind of couple's therapy.

The "honeymoon suite" is a disaster. The couple's spirits are further dampened by constant banging from next door. Yet the proprietor insists the Foxes are the only motel guests. David throws a video into the VCR, which turns out to be a low-grade slasher movie. But wait! The terror and murders take place on a set that looks remarkably like the honeymoon suite. My God, it is the honeymoon suite! The sinking realization hits the Foxes that they are about to star in their own snuff film.

The movie's only original idea comes when David carefully studies the snuff videos to look for patterns in the attacks and "mistakes" by previous victims from which the couple can profit. But then an avalanche of cheap shocks, leaps in logic, villains in "Halloween" get-ups and other grindhouse moments overwhelm the story. The worst occurs when the killers cheerfully murder a police officer investigating a 911 call from the motel. Any cop failing to call in following such a call would bring an army of fellow officers down on the motel in a matter of minutes.

Antal, whose "Kontroll" took place almost entirely underground within the Budapest subway system, goes for a similar monster-in-the-closet claustrophobia here, pushing his characters into corners and tight spaces where a scream does absolutely no good. Even so, the film runs out of "chill" ideas so early that the makers shamelessly resort to rodents to keep up the ick factor alive.

Production values, especially the fingernails-on-a-blackboard score by Paul Haslinger and Jon Gary Steele's set, with its passageways and hiding places, do much of the heavy lifting. Still, at the end of the night, the film feels tired, derivative and lackluster.

VACANCY
Screen Gems
A Hal Lieberman Co. production
Credits:
Director: Nimrod Antal
Screenwriter: Mark L. Smith
Producer: Hal Liebermann
Executive producers: Glenn S. Gainor, Stacy Kolker Cramer, Brian Paschal
Director of photography: Andrzej Sekula
Production designer: Jon Gary Steele
Music: Paul Haslinger
Costume designer: Maya Lieberman
Editor: Armen Minasian
Cast:
Amy: Kate Beckinsale
David: Luke Wilson
Mason: Frank Whaley
Mechanic: Ethan Embry
Killer: Scott G. Anderson
Truck driver: Mark Cassella
Cop: David Doty
Running time -- 85 minutes
MPAA rating: R 

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