David (Luke Wilson) and his wife Amy Fox (Kate Beckinsale) are driving home through the night and along a lonely stretch of road after a family gathering that they might have enjoyed more if they hadn't had to keep the fact that they're divorcing secret. Suddenly, David swerves to avoid a racoon that is in the way, and they almost fly into the verge until he manages to regain control of the car and stop. This doesn't help Amy's mood as she was dozing in the passenger seat, and yet another bitter conversation erupts between them as the hunt begins to find a gas station up ahead now that the almost-crash has caused a fault. Maybe they should find somewhere to stay the night...
After he made a tight little thriller called Kontroll in Europe, director Nimród Antal was escorted all the way to Hollywood for his next project, another tight little thriller which was more horror inflected. Vacancy was somewhat overlooked in the more explicitly violent shockers of the day, but that's not to say it should have been ignored, as it was an ideal example of the way that an uncomplicated plot which could be summed up in one sentence was not necessarily a bad thing, and that simplicity could be a bonus. Somethimes the pleasure of a straightforward movie that had nothing in its mind other than to supply a decent thrill ride was not to be underestimated.
The relationship between David and Amy may be strained, and is sketched in with light precision in Mark L. Smith's economical script so we know it was the loss of a child which caused them to break apart, but there's nothing like the threat of murder to bring a couple together. It's almost a pity that the premise of the film is likely to be known by the viewer before they watch it, as there's a lot of scene-setting to get through, all of it relevant, whereas if you were not aware of where it was heading then it would probably be more surprising. Yet even if you can guess that David and Amy are embarking on a trip into hell, there is nevertheless excitement to be gained.
First they meet a mechanic (Ethan Embry) at a gas station who fixes whatever was wrong with the car, only to find out he hasn't done a great job a little way down the road, although by this time we are suspicious that the mechanic might have "fixed" their vehicle in another way. Having to get out of the car and walk, as luck would have it there is a motel down the way that they stop at and meet the manager (played by Frank Whaley at his most weasely) who tells them that no garage will be open at this time in the morning. What else to do but check into the honeymoon suite, as recommended by the manager? They cannot hide their distaste, but surely nothing else can happen now?
Well, if you think that you've never seen a horror movie before, as when David sticks a few videotapes on he notices that they are not merely violent thrillers, but have been shot in the very room that they are in, and those people dying onscreen are being killed for real, yes, it's our old urban myth friend the snuff movie rearing its ugly head once again, and David and Amy are stuck right in the middle of it. The location evokes favourable memories of seventies horrors such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with its deliberate design to make it look like something that hailed from that era, although the short running time and small cast harken back even further to the heyday of the American B-movie, equally flatteringly. If the mayhem that follows is by the numbers, the paranoia it taps into will never go out of fashion, and Vacancy is a modest success. Great title sequence, too. Music by Paul Haslinger.