As a general rule I have a considerable distain for what is commonly referred to as ‘torture porn’; the substitution of mindless, overly elaborate infliction of pain and suffering by the protagonist. Some call it ‘The Jack Bauer syndrome’ after the hero in the hit television show, ‘24’. The major concern here is the over the subjugation of a coherent story for a seemingly endless stream of agony usually culminating in death which has become the new standard for the once noble genre of horror. For horror fans that go back a few decades there was a time when the dominant means of frightening the audience was psychological rather than a dependency on the purely visceral reaction to blood and gore. One reason for this was the sensitivity prevalent during the golden age of cinema, the thirties to fifties. The filmmaker was not permitted to depict images and activities that have become common place today. In the case of the horror movie, ‘Vacancy’, torture is undeniably a significant portion of the central plot points here but thankfully it is not the entire emphasis of the movie. It also fails one of the above cited criteria for torture porn; the protagonist is not the one inflicting the torment. There is just a dollop of social commentary, just enough to supply some focus to the story.
David (Luke Wilson) and Amy Fox (Kate Beckinsale) is a young married couple off on holiday. Night while driving they lose their war turning off onto a deserted mountain road. The car predictably breaks down and naturally there isn’t cell service. This does provide the requisite element of isolation and helplessness de rigueur for any horror movie. With the advent of technology putting everyone in constant communication with the world achieving this goal is getting increasingly difficult. Although a bit hackneyed the plot point generate the appropriate setting for the desired, creepy mood. Many horrors start this way in order to expedite presenting the actual plot. What is important is not the beginning but the journey the story teller takes his audience on. The next step is also cliché but obviously is germane; the couple comes across a rundown motel adorned with the titular neon sign flashing ‘Vacancy’. Devoid of alternative options they check in for the night. The first indication that something is wrong is the stack of sleazy sex magazines. The manager, Mason (Frank Whaley), is the creepiest person to hold that job since Norman Bates but the Foxes have nowhere else to stay.
David is understandably bored and tired so he goes over to television examining the pile of old video tapes next to it. Considering the content of the magazines he expected pornography but when he places one in the archaic video recorder David receives an unpleasant surprise; the video tapes are snuff flicks. Adding yet another unsettling element to an already disturbing evening, the room where the victim is killed is the one they are in. their alarm is escalated by the constant banging coming from the adjacent room. Realizing that it would be in their best interest to expedite their departure they are blocked by a pair of men in blue wearing masks. Making hasty retreat back to the room the lock themselves in just as a long haul truck pulls in. their attempt to warn him proves unnecessary; the trucker is there to pick up a box of the tapes. They frantically search the room for any other means to hide or preferably escape discovering a tunnel hidden in the bathroom. It leads to Mason’s office which is set up as a monitoring station to record every room in the motel. There is the mandatory attempt to call for help on the pay phone by Amy only to be thwarted by one of the masked men before she can get help. The police do respond to the 911 call even though Amy was not able to provide useful information. They think they have been rescued until the officer is murdered while checking his car, neatly disabled by the killers. This leads to the usual cat and mouse game as Amy and David try to elude the killer unnecessarily revealed to be Mason and a cohort.
What the film lacks in plot originality it honestly tries to make up for stylistically. As previously noted torture is the driving force behind the story but the redeeming factor is in its use. The deployment of torture is a firm of McGuffin; more important to the characters within the context of the story than the audience watching it. The actual use of inflicting pain is mostly restricted to the brief exposure we have to the contents of the video tapes seen by David. The director, Nimród Antal, expertly refrains from bringing it into the substance of the action. After this movie he expanded his scope to science fiction, ‘Predators’ and crime thrillers ‘Armored’ demonstrating horror is not his primary creative outlet. This shows in the construction of the movie in particular the pacing. Ample time is allotted to character development to establish Amy and David as an identifiable pair of characters. This is crucial in order for the viewers to become emotionally vested with them. In addition this attachment enhances the filmmaker’s ability to present the horrifying circumstances on a psychological plane with the audience. Torture is frequently reduced to little more than tearing flesh disassociated from the humanity of the victim. The story provided by Mark L. Smith endeavors to have the core impact generated by the fear experienced by Amy and David as they desperately flee from the agonizing demise they know awaits them. This screenplay was the sophomore effort for this writer a showed promise despite the overuse of plot contrivances. The performances provided by actors associated with mainstream, non-horror films greatly help in pulling the audience out of the standard horror mindset steering them into the realm of a psychological thriller. Although given to some flaws the film works better than you mind think especially considering the underlying story line.
Checking In: Behind-the-Scenes of Vacancy