Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 04/20/07 14:00:00

"Imagine If This Was The Turn Babel Took"
3 stars (Average)

Torture porn is the chic term thrown around these days to provide a subversively grotesque genre for films like the Saw and Hostel series. Men and women subjected to all sorts of horrific living-death type situations while the characters inflicting such terror get off on some moralistic or adrenaline-fueled high. It’s nowhere near a new concept however. Revenge pictures have been served cold for decades, some masquerading as female empowerment, but all intent on providing an enjoying comeuppance for movie patrons to root on fresh blood. Vacancy is a curious entry into the latest spate of these titles. It’s a problematic, albeit skillfully made, in-and-out kind of thriller that, while coming up short in the bloodlust department, is more fascinating as a missed opportunity to be a true commentary on the genre even as it occasionally backs into it almost by accident.

On the backroads off the interstate where films like this usually begin, Amy & David Fox (Kate Beckinsale & Luke Wilson) are returning from a family gathering, one whom only one of them shall lay claim to once those divorce papers are signed. They bicker over David’s choice for a short cut. She gets to sleep while he drives. Typical married stuff. If it wasn’t for that damned raccoon in the road, he might not have dinged the engine forcing them to stop at that gas station where the sole mechanic on duty (Ethan Embry) may have messed up the Johnson Rod entirely. Left to foot it back to the motel next to the station, the couple are given the five dollar-extra honeymoon suite from the creepy manager (Frank Whaley) which comes with all sorts of amenities.

There’s the cockroaches to get your woman off the floor and into bed. The absence of cable TV will keep her in bed. And let’s not forget the handy minute-by-minute wake-up service of people pounding on your doors trying to kill you.

Yes, the Foxes are in for an evening. After David tries out the videotapes left in the room, it becomes apparent that the couple may be the latest victims of a snuff film setup. Cameras are placed throughout the room. No phone service. And a car on the fritz. How will they survive?

Since we’re already a half-hour into a film that runs only about 75 minutes once you chop off the front-and-back credits, I’d rather not reveal their methods at self-preservation. Frankly cause there’s not much to reveal and its not all that clever. But director Nimród Antal (Kontroll) keeps an expediated pace so we don’t notice as much. In doing so, however, he also loses any chance at a more developed tension and his set pieces (most notably in an underground tunnel) often suffer through abbreviated imagination. While the film’s ads would likely have spoiled it anyway, the Foxes’ initial disturbance (the constant door pounding) evokes the paranormal potential of Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Vacancy is in such a hurry though to get to the human element that it barely musters enough time for anyone to think up the word ghost unless they’re referring to the Foxes’ deceased son which reminded me more of Pitt-and-Blanchett’s (ill-fated) Babel Vacation.

What does manifest for those reading in-between the carnage is the wavering indictment on these types of films. It creates an additional layer of mystery in wondering if the filmmakers even intended to make such a sociological statement. The voyeuristic tendencies inherit in movie watching have been explored from the highs (Rear Window) to the lows (Disturbia) and back to the middle (Déjà vu, the story of a black man trying to change the outcome by screaming at the screen.) Audiences watching characters watching other characters is the blueprint for access into this parallel and when the Foxes hand over twenty bucks to the gas station attendant, they have unwittingly paid their way into the nightmare. Whaley’s weasly manager has a lower-rent version of Stephen Baldwin’s Sliver setup in his office and his operation allows him to be both spectator and producer. When he takes on a director’s role late in the film, screaming for his actress to stay in frame, it’s a sidebar more chilling than the usual carnage and mayhem.

Like most of Vacancy though, it’s a moment not given time to breathe. Even the tables being turned on the attackers have a curiously rushed outcome for all those involved. Instead of wondering if any of them are going to unshockingly jump back to life (the cardinal sin of avoiding audience groans is committed with one character), you’re more likely to ask how one knows immediately where to look for a snatched phone cord when its impossible they would have had that visual information under their extreme circumstances. Just one of the details that director Nimród missed in elevating his own version of trashy luridness from VHS-to-DVD quality.

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