Suspense is claustrophobia. It's being trapped in a confined space, knowing that a murderer and his gleaming blade are all of two or three feet away but unable to do a damned thing about it. Okay, that may not be the literal definition of suspense, but nothing in this sort of violent thriller unnerves me the way claustrophobic stalking-and-slashing can. For nearly every moment of its lean, economical 80 minute runtime, that's all Vacancy does.
The movie opens with David and Amy Fox (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) trudging their way back from a dinner party with the family. Days away from dotting the Is on their divorce papers, their final road trip together is dripping with mutual acrimony. Having slept off an anti-depressant cocktail, Amy wakes up to see that they've long since shrugged off the interstate in favor of some hopelessly obscure backroad. Taking a shortcut in a thriller is rarely a winning idea, and the Foxes quickly find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere. Amy and David make the mile or two trek back to a rundown, out-of-the-way motel, but when the oddball manager there (Frank Whaley) tells them that all of the local garages have long since closed for the evening, they grudgingly decide to spend the night there.
The room doesn't look like it's been renovated -- or hell, even cleaned -- since Mayberry R.F.D. went off the air, but it's the incessant pounding from next door that really gets under their skin. David bitches to the manager, and once it seems to let up, he decides to unwind by watching one of the unlabeled video tapes stacked on top of the TV. It at first looks like a microbudget slasher flick with a couple of masked killers repeatedly stabbing everyone in sight, but David and Amy gradually realize that this isn't a movie -- it's a snuff film -- and these tapes were shot in the same decrepit motel room they're in now. David scours the room, and sure enough, there are scores of cameras hidden throughout. He knows the murderers have heard him watch the tapes, and it's just a matter of time until the blank-faced, unflinchingly brutal killers storm their motel room for their blood-spattered, homebrew sequel.
Vacancy strips the thriller formula down to bare metal. There are all of five or six on-screen speaking roles in the entire movie and just a tiny handful of claustrophobic sets. There are no subplots, supporting cast members, or clunky police investigations to pad out the runtime; once Amy and David are handed the key, they spend the rest of the movie either trapped in the motel room or at the very most no more than a few hundred feet from it, in mortal danger for every waking moment. Vacancy never lulls its characters or the audience into a false sense of security, and a persistent dread permeates every frame of the film. Vacancy is unrelentingly sadistic despite its microscopic body count and the fact that nearly all of the gore is limited to bloodied clothing and obscured stabs on the snuff videos. I like barrel drums of the red stuff as much as anyone, but Vacancy manages to be unnerving without using grue as a crutch.
Vacancy ditches another spam-in-a-cabin cliché by making Amy and David such three-dimensional characters. For most of the movie, at least, they come across as real people, not cardboard plot devices, and even their embittered bickering at the outset seems thoroughly genuine. Most of these slasher/thriller flicks require that stupid people continually do stupid things to keep the story moving, but writer Mark L. Smith's screenplay is confident enough to ensure that the two leads are bright and as level-headed as anyone in this situation could realistically be. Vacancy teases genre-savvy viewers by setting up some seemingly clichéd setpieces before veering away from the usual expectations. A few contrivances do creep in as Vacancy draws to a close, and the ending isn't as surefooted as the rest of the film, but a slightly shaky dismount is infinitely more preferable to the clunky twist or "one last scare...!" that always seem to end these sorts of movies.
It helps that there's so much talent on both sides of the camera. Having helmed Kontroll a few years earlier, director Nimród Antal is no stranger to this sort of claustrophobic thriller, and both he and seasoned cinematographer Andrzej Sekula have a sufficiently keen eye to visually distinguish Vacancy from the current wave of torture-porn. It's a rather nice looking film, and the writing and acting are strong enough that there's no need to lean on frenetic quick-cutting, lazy jump scares, or gimmicky skip-bleach processing. Frank Whaley deserves kudos for not overplaying the creepy motel manager role. There's something much more eerie about someone who just seems awkward and a little off than an ominous sting in the score and an imposingly deep, baritone growl could ever hope to accomplish. Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale play a couple on the throes of divorce, seething in a way that's much closer to the reality of marriage than the saccharine-sweet couples I'm used to seeing on-screen. The fact that Amy and David are so well-realized ratchets up the tension; it's doesn't really qualify as suspense if I don't care if a character is eviscerated or not.
No, Vacancy doesn't reinvent the thriller, but even if the overall premise sounds like a movie you've seen a hundred times before, it's more skillfully crafted and so much more suspenseful than the overwhelming majority of them. Even as jaded as I am from inundating myself in these same sorts of films, Vacancy managed to keep me perched on the edge of my couch for just about every minute of its lean runtime, and it's easily one of the most tense thrillers I've seen in quite a long time. Highly Recommended.
Video: Compressed with the AVC codec and presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1, Vacancy looks fantastic. The photography does have a deliberately subdued visual style, and even if it doesn't pop off the screen as the most instantly striking high-def releases often do, I have no doubt that it's a faithful representation of the way the film looked theatrically. Much of the screen is blanketed in shadow, bolstered by deep, inky blacks. The dingy browns and olive greens of the motel room look like they were yanked straight out of the early '70s, and the neon lights are as bright and bold as expected. The image is remarkably clean, not exhibiting any trace of film grain but also not marred by the overprocessed look that often accompanies noise reduction. It's as sharp and detailed as expected from a movie straight out of theaters, and I couldn't spot any compression hiccups throughout, not even when Amy goofs around with a sparkler that would've wreaked havoc on cable and satellite high-def channels. Even if Vacancy's subdued aesthetic means that this disc isn't exactly showcase material, the movie still looks excellent on Blu-ray and is wholly free of any discernable flaws.
Audio: Vacancy boasts a robust 5.1 PCM soundtrack, with the unrelenting pounding from the room next door and the resounding percussion in the score coaxing a hellish amount of bass from the subwoofer. The surround channels are used sparingly but effectively, reinforcing some of the vehicular mayhem scattered throughout the movie, and the chirping of the cicada outside adds some ambiance to the mix. The dialogue doesn't have the sparkling clarity of some of the best soundtracks I've heard in these next-gen formats, but there's not a flicker of distortion in even the most bloodcurdling screams, and none of the line readings are ever buried in the mix. Though it's not particularly aggressive, the sound design is a strong fit for Vacancy's claustrophobic approach.
Also offered are Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks and subtitles in English and French.
Extras: Vacancy is light on extras, but at least one of them is pretty clever: a full nine minutes' worth of the snuff videos that can be spotted on the low-rent TVs and monitors throughout the movie. Filling the screen at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, the standard definition DV footage shows seven or eight different sets of people being butchered in the rundown honeymoon suite, including a few busty coeds, a couple of stereotypes puffing on a bong, and one hapless guy who winds up being pinned by a mattress.
The twenty-two minute featurette "Checking In: The Cast and Crew of Vacancy" is offered up in high definition, featuring interviews with director Nimród Antal, writer Mark L. Smith, production designer Jon Gary Steele, director of photography Andrzej Sekula, stunt coordinator Lance Gilbert, a small army of producers, and actors Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Ethan Embry, and Frank Whaley. "Checking In" starts off the same way as most promotional featurettes, recapping the characters and the plot in between a slew of clips from the movie, but it improves a good bit once it settles in. Among the topics the featurette tackles are the trips through the wasteland of New Mexico that inspired the story, shooting on the same soundstage as The Wizard of Oz, constructing a motel from scratch for the exteriors, using real cars for the stunts instead of leaning on CG, the approach to the film's cinematography and production design, shooting the snuff footage, and coming up with the movie's somewhat unconventional ending.
There are two short deleted scenes, beginning with an alternate intro that would have clumsily opened Vacancy with a police investigation. The minute long scene runs a little over a minute in length and is offered in high-def, although it's brighter and considerably less polished than the rest of the film. The other -- presented in standard definition and not enhanced for widescreen displays -- just has David startled by a raccoon while taking a piss. The movie's better off with the two of those scenes scattered across the cutting room floor, and there's really not much to either of them.
Also included are high definition trailers for Premonition, Perfect Stranger, Ghost Rider, The Messengers, Underworld: Evolution, and Hostel Part II.
Conclusion: With as many eye-rollingly schlocky thrillers as there are on these next-gen formats, it's refreshing to finally see one as strong as Vacancy. Sharply written, acted, and directed, Vacancy is a surgical strike, avoiding getting mired in backstory, flashbacks, or subplots and instead unrelentingly unnerving the audience for 80 minutes straight. The Psycho comparison on the shrinkwrap is overblown -- I enjoyed the hell out of Vacancy, but Hitchcock it's not -- but this is easily one of the best thrillers on Blu-ray, and it's highly recommended for home theater buffs in search of a good scare. Highly Recommended.