First screened and reviewed in May 2014
Director: Nimród Antal. With: Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry, Mark Casella, David Doty, Scott G. Anderson. Screenplay: Mark L. Smith.

Twitter Capsule: Movie is roundly outdone by its own opening credits. Awfully incompetent for a movie that pauses to admonish its audience.

VOR:   You've seen it a thousand times: the basic genre setup, plot genre convolutions, the European artist blunted by studios.

This review is for Caetlin Benson-Allott, a brilliant critic who, in this case, deserved a better movie than she got!

Photo © 2007 Screen Gems/Sony Entertainment
The 80 minutes of Vacancy make room for three moments of delicious movie-movie pleasure, one of them so early and so savory that you can't help but assume (wistful, frustrated assumption!) that there are plenty more to come. I speak here of the opening credits, which pop with color, velocity, and visual invention. The roster of assembled talent whirls at 90° angles, fonts and consonant stems stretching to fill the screen. Paul Haslinger's engaging score saws away at its overripe refrains, until the layers and layers of palimpsestic text form a giant maze that takes the form of...a license plate. Neither the music nor the visual concepts have anything to do with the rest of the movie, really; we will eventually encounter an underground network of tunnels, but it's laughably simple for a "maze." Still, the flair of this intro furnishes its own reward, stoking our hope that the movie will do the same. Exactly twice, it does, first with a split-second joke about an automatic light in a phone booth. In the other instance, Frank Whaley (Swimming with Sharks), as an immediately transparent villain-concierge, causes a tiff with two prospective occupants played by Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale when he asks them for some form of ID. Grouchy and bone-weary, Played By Luke Wilson assures the conceirge that neither he nor his wife will speed off with the motel's towels in the morning. "I'm sure you won't," Whaley plummily responds, and though the blandly peevish protagonists take him to mean one thing, we know better.

This moment marks the only real fun in Whaley's otherwise gangly performance, somehow too purple but also too studied in its external affectations for the audience to enjoy. We notice the character in ways we shouldn't, and are already bored with him by the time we're meant to take more notice. Worse, the same moment proves an epitaph for any vital spark in the movie. There's no more fun to be had here, unless one counts the gruesome and increasingly hilarious pile-up of genre clichés and of character behaviors bordering on the autistic.

Vacancy houses two symmetrical plots, one concering the entrapment of two bickering lovers inside a torture chamber disguised as a bargain-basement motel room, the other concerning the entrapment of a new and promising European director (Kontroll's Nimród Antal) inside a chunk of barely processed hackwork disguised as a Hollywood "breakthrough." One would like to pity Antal and bemoan the studios' chronic inability to furnish their émigrés-for-hire with deserving and substantial material. In truth, Kontroll, a black comedy with philosophical and political aspirations, set entirely inside the subway system of Budapest, suggests an artist with a surer sense of Hungary than of cinema per se, and it seems remarkably, even cynically early for Antal to be renting himself out for gigs like Vacancy. However stunted his material, he frequently acts as his own worst enemy, killing our pleasure and stoking our derision with the kind of storyboard conceits and pretentious banalities that augur dismally for the inevitable DVD commentary track. He scrawls Themes as well as Formal Ideas into his picture with the kind of subtlety typically associated with the Crayola 64-Pack. Throughout the dumbly protracted opening sequence, as Played By Luke Wilson rubs his bleary eyes during a midnight drive and bickers with Played By Kate Beckinsale about their ready-made backstory (toddler, accident), Vacancy ventures elaborately out of its way to keep the actors out of the same frame as often as possible—underscoring their alienation from each other in the crudest of ways. Already, the screenplay has been written entirely in boldface, so why Antal sees his job as "underscoring" anything is beyond me, rather than complicating or deepening or rechanneling.

Nearly an hour later, at a juncture clearly structured as a money-shot for all the film-school graduates out there, Antal's camera pulls back from the shivering quarry as they crouch in a corner of their lodging-cum-dungeon. Played By Kate Beckinsale asks why their persecutors have outfitted the room with an armada of cameras, and why she and her husband have been recruited as prey in such a diabolical feast. Played By Luke Wilson responds, "I think they're enjoying themselves," and because he looks directly into the camera, and because the image coarsens and pixellates into one of the live-camera feeds in Whaley's improbable bank of surveillance screens, Vacancy bludgeons home the message that we, too, are "enjoying ourselves" with this commodified spectacle of cruelty.

Except that we are not enjoying ourselves, because Vacancy is risible in its construction and in its vision of human character. Lacking anything in the way of wit or acuity, the film never earns or explains the self-abjecting glee with which it indicts the cinema audience and maybe even the cinema itself as somehow complicit with the movie's represented crimes. Like last year's remake of The Hills Have Eyes, which swiped Bush-era "America" as a convenient scapegoat and carapace for its own prurient appetites, Vacancy wants to hang its own sadism on a thin rod of apparatus critique. In a movie season full of Rear Window retreads, Vacancy is the most trite and opportunistic in its feints at intellectual weight. Frankly, Antal might have done better to trouble himself with the rudiments of blocking a scene and tightening exposition, and maybe trusted the audience more in terms of tone and insinuation. The movie, extremely frugal by Hollywood standards, nonetheless cost almost forty times what Kontroll did and still looks dingy by comparison. Best, then, to give up hope that Vacancy might add to the recent trend in mini-thrillers with big impacts, from Crank to Red Eye. Those films remind us what is possible in a compressed timeframe and in pop-film language that doesn't work so hard to "dignify" itself through highfalutin allusions or supercilious morality.

Best, in fact, to mine from the crumbly ore of Vacancy a drinking game plated in gold, and delectate over the many, many lines of uproariously bad dialogue. After invisible assailants pound on the couple's door and rattle their locks; after discovering that the VHS tapes piled on the television feature scenes of past, pornographic tortures within this very room; after happening upon the motherlode of camera lenses inside various ducts and vents in the room, which are meant to explain the remarkably generous diversity of camera angles on the videotapes; after all this, Played By Luke Wilson proclaims, "Okay, we gotta get outta here!" This disarmingly earnest ejaculation put me immediately in mind of that priceless moment in Species when the now-Oscared Forest Whitaker, cast as a "professional empath" helping to trail a rapacious alien, sidles up to a stainless steel laboratory wall that has been rent into a bloodstained maw of twisted metal, and then intuits for the benefit of his colleagues, "I think she went this way!" Vacancy is full of moments like that. Having established, twice, that Played By Kate Beckinsale can't get reception on her cellphone, Antal still throws in a close-up of the phone being trampled underfoot by a knife-wielding baddie. If you've been sneaking nips on your hip-flask during the previous half-hour, you'll now know why she doesn't just call someone. Trapdoors in the floor are no sooner discovered than they are left carelessly open while those who are about to die try, from their enormous front window, to flag the attention of a wayward trucker. Oddly, as the camera cuts to a POV shot of this potential good samaritan from the vantage of our low-IQ heroes, and we see the masked sociopaths encroaching upon him, Played By Luke and Played By Kate persist in banging inexpressively on the plexiglas. Rather than, say, making the international symbol for "Turn around! Behind you!"

My other favorite sequence is the attempted getaway through those subterranean but not-quite-mazelike tunnels to which I earlier alluded. Antal and well-practiced cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction, American Psycho) can't quite convince us that we're inside a tunnel, or in any particular hurry. The shots feel roomy, wide-angled, and strangely static, like the rear-projected car chase in Saw. Played By Kate Beckinsale gets a bad attack of claustrophobia, prompting her hubby to make the best suggestion ever offered by a crawling man trying to flee some serial killers: "Close your eyes and grab hold of my leg!" If I'm ever stranded in a desperate gambit for my own life, trapped in a Panic Room that I keep running away from and then running back into, let's hope my companion isn't a Wilson brother, or anyone else who seems to have his best ideas (including those about script selection) with an ounce in his hand and some hee-hee in his head.

There's more to enjoy in Vacancy from here, not least the moment when the arch-villain has a brutal, final-reel tussle with one of his victims and then, just on the precipice of victory, he actually throws her onto a loaded gun. Oh, and the bit where Antal shoots some crucial POV action through the lowered blinds of a rural gas station, but then has his hiding-for-their-lives protagonists lift these bamboo blinds above their heads in their reaction shot, the better to see with, and the better to invite the attention of bloodthirsty maniacs. Had Vacancy betrayed even the slightest urge to bathe in its own vulgarity and beat the studios at their own diacritical game—i.e., delivering the goods of a site-specific thriller while exposing how infantile and absurd the enterprise is—one might at least have thrilled to its petulant, disreputable panache. Instead, the movie professes to delve and to illuminate, studious and schoolmarmish at the same time, while losing the strands of its own threadbare plot and lacking even the courage of its most paltry convictions. When, following the final image, Antal once more emblazons the screen with "Vacancy" in red capital letters, the word feels less like a title and more like a diagnosis. Grade: D

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