Saturday, June 9, 2007


As if to pay homage to the granddaddy of all “loony in a motel” films, Vacancy opens* with what can be viewed as the 21st-century descendant of the Saul Bass-designed title sequence from Hitchcock’s Psycho, a sequence which coolly segues into the license plate of the car of Amy (Kate Beckinsale) and David Fox (Luke Wilson), a couple under the strain of an impending divorce.
It’s late, they’re lost, and the car’s beginning to look like it could be trouble. After apparently getting some help from a mechanic (Ethan Embry, goofy stoner Mark from Empire Records and the Jennifer Love Hewitt-yearning Preston from Can’t Hardly Wait), the Foxes eventually end up at the Pinewood Motel, overseen by its weirdo manager, Mason (Frank Whaley, fantastic in Keith Gordon’s A Midnight Clear and Thomas Carter’s Swing Kids).
They’re forced to spend the night at the ratty Honeymoon Suite, and when David can’t find anything on TV, he sticks in a VHS tape.
That’s when the fun starts.

Much as Eli Roth’s Hostel did, Vacancy uses the idea of torture and violence as a commercial venture as the springboard for its plot, and succeeds in giving its audience a tense and engaging thriller.
This is doubly interesting to me, as the film’s central idea is also a reflection on the fact that this kind of horror film (alternately called “torture porn”—from a phrase coined by New York Magazine’s David Edelstein—or my personal preference, “gorno”) is proving very profitable for Hollywood.
If the baddies of Hostel and Vacancy can make a quick buck off the misery and torture of hapless innocents, than why can’t Hollywood rip off audiences the world over with shrill screams and fake blood?
For any of you out there though who may take offense at anything called “torture porn,” let me assure you, Vacancy’s on-screen gore quotient is minimal in the extreme. There is violence of course, but not the sort of splatter movie violence where we see dismemberment and eye gouging and disemboweling. Vacancy is more thriller than gorno, and it’s a taut little bugger too.

What makes Vacancy even more effective is the fact that you become embroiled in this sullen, largely toxic relationship between husband and wife, played effectively by Beckinsale and Wilson. You feel the tension and the regret that this couple share, and you sense the spectre of the love that was once there.
You sympathize with them so much, that when the fit hits the shan, it’s actually a relief that they don’t devolve into hysterical recrimination. (After all, isn’t the fact that your lives are in danger far more important than anything else?)
It’s also a relief to see Beckinsale in something other than body-hugging black leather making out with Ben from Felicity, so if just for that, Amy Fox is a singular triumph.

If Vacancy has a weakness though, it can arguably be found in an ending that both soft pedals what came just before it, and perhaps in striving for realism (no protracted “psycho gets up after being stabbed/shot/mortally wounded to relentlessly stalk his victim” sequence here), director Nimrod Antal (Kontroll) and writer Mark L. Smith wind up crafting a climax that feels somewhat truncated.
That last shot had a feeling of: What?! That’s it?
Still, all in all, the ride getting to that final shot is worth it.
And if you’re not gonna give me much more than a good story about people in extreme, life-threatening situations (ie. no social or political commentary amidst the grue), then I’d much rather see an effective, if somewhat flawed, thriller than scene after scene of pointless blood and gore.

* It’s a savvy title sequence that’s one of the most interesting I’ve seen this year. (And that one sheet just slays, too.)

Parting shot: I love the conflation “gorno” (gore + porno), as it has that sleazy vibe to it, and a majority of the sub-genre’s titles strike me as violence for violence’s sake.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me a good horror film. Always have, always will.
But once you’ve seen Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, seeing other films of extreme violence (or, Heaven help me, seeing remakes of these classic films of extreme violence) just seems rather pointless, if they have nothing much more in their celluloid beyond the gore and grue.
Unless the point is to make a ton of money on a relatively low budget, which seems to be the case a lot of the time.
Now, when the film is a Hostel or a Saw, then I get it, and these are two of the films that give gorno its good name.
But when it’s a Turistas, or a Saw sequel, or a Texas Chainsaw remake (or prequel), or a Hills Have Eyes remake (or sequel remake), then these are the sort of films that give gorno its bad name.
And as you can see from the above sampling, they outnumber the goodies, believe me.

(Vacancy OS courtesy of

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