The English language debut feature from American born Hungarian director Nimrod Antal, Vacancy isn't going to win any awards for originality but it does prove that sometimes a film doesn't always need to break new ground to be effective.
David Fox and his wife Amy (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale respectively) are a married couple in the midst of contemplating a divorce. Things haven't been good for a while now and they're not going to get better any time soon. When David drives off the road narrowly missing an animal he swerved to avoid killing, the pair that their car is acting odd. A nearby mechanic tries to help but before you know it, and before they can get back to the highway, their car isn't running anymore and they're out there in the dark woods alone.
As David and Amy walk through the night, they're relieved to find a remote hotel. While it's far from what anyone would consider deluxe accommodations, this run down establishment is at least a bed to lie in and a roof over their heads. They talk to the manager, Mason (Frank Whaley), and then check in. Then things get odd. The couple hear strange pounding noises from the room next door but a little snooping on David's part turns up nothing. The TV won't bring in a single channel but there's a box of what the couple thinks are low budget horror movies in a box nearby. They put on one of the movies and David clues in to the fact that the set in the movie looks an awful lot like the room they've just rented for the night. He pokes around and finds small hidden cameras set up and then the strange men in black masks show up...
Extremely tense in spots, Vacancy runs a quick eighty-five minutes (that includes opening and closing credits!) and as such, is paced very quickly. Antal wastes no time setting things up at the hotel and once our two leads are stuck in their sticky situation, the spook-show ramps up nicely towards a very exciting conclusion. This pacing combines with some very claustrophobic cinematography that really makes the hotel seem small, seedy and frightening resulting in a film that is really little more than a chase scene but which succeeds by keeping us on the edge of our seat the entire time.
That said, while the film is tense and frightening, it's far from perfect. The characters of David and Amy are fairly one dimensional and not all that interesting, even if Wilson and Beckinsale do perfectly fine with their respective roles. They're both decent enough actors and they handle what one could assume is fairly realistic dialogue quite well, it's just that there isn't very much attention paid to their back-story and we don't really know them as well as we should in order to really care about them. The failing marriage subplot adds some interesting depth to the two of them but it's not quite enough. Likewise, the main antagonist isn't fleshed out very much at all, leaving us to wonder about his background more than just a little bit.
Even with some character flaws, however, Vacancy gets a lot more right then wrong. The imagery and sets are genuinely frightening and the cinematography is excellent. The acting is good, the story and pacing are tense and the scares are solid indeed. The film makes a few interesting points in terms of who watches what and why, even pointing the finger at the audience once or twice, and also contains some subtle but classy nods to horror films past (a certain hotel based Hitchcock thriller in particular comes to mind). If things are a little bit vacant (pun intended) and there are a few rather cliché moments in the end, it's easy to forgive the film because the rest of it works very well.
Sony provides both anamorphic 2.40.1 widescreen and 1.33.1 icky pan and scan options on the same disc. The 1.33.1 version is obviously missing a lot of picture information while the 2.40.1 looks dead on as far as the compositions are concerned. The quality of the image itself is strong, with nice deep blacks and slightly muted but completely appropriate color reproduction. Fine detail is nice in both the foreground and in the background of the picture and there are no problems to report with mpeg compression artifacts or heavy print damage. A bit of grain rears its head in a couple of spots but it's never detrimental. There is some very obvious edge enhancement that will stand out in a few scenes but aside from this, the picture quality on this release is very good indeed.
Audio options are provided in English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and dubbed French Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround with optional subtitles available in English and French. As the film builds in intensity, so too does the surround sound mix with the rear channels used sparingly at first but playing a big part in the film's ambience and mood as the story progresses. Dialogue is clean and clear from start to finish and levels are properly balanced throughout. There are no problems at all with hiss or distortion and bass response is tight and bouncy. Effects and background music are nice and sharp and there's really nothing to complain about here - Vacancy sounds great.
While not a barebones release, the extras feel unusually light on this release. Kicking things off are some deleted scenes and an alternate ending. These are all pretty superficial and don't add much of anything to the movie. The filmmaker's made the right choice by using the ending that wound up in the final cut of the movie. Behind The Scenes: Checking In is a decent if brief featurette that covers Nimrod Antal's directing abilities and which explains and documents some of the impressive stunt work used in the last half of the picture. Also included are trailers and previews for other, unrelated Sony films, animated menus and chapter stops.
Vacancy isn't reinventing the wheel but it is a very fast-paced and tense thriller with some genuinely scary bits and some decent performances and set pieces. Sony's disc is light on supplements but it looks and sounds quite good making this release recommended for horror fans and a solid rental for everyone else.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.