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Nicola Mostyn puts her fear threshold to the test

Published on June 20th 2007.


There’s a law etched into a tablet of stone in Hollywood which decrees that the more animosity there is between a married couple in the opening scenes of a horror film, the more excruciating the events necessary to unite them.

Given the viciousness of the bickering between Amy (Kate Beckinsale) and David (Luke Wilson) as they travel the deserted back roads of America on their way home from a family gathering, you know that it’s going to take one pretty homicidal Mofo to reunite this pair in their affections.

Luckily for them, their car is about to break down. They are miles from the interstate and there’s a motel manager who specialises in trapping guests in their room and then filming their terrified flailings as they are tortured, beaten and brutally stabbed to death. And he doesn’t even leave little mints on the pillow.

With the Hitchcockian opening credits, a motel setting and two big name leads you’d be forgiven for expecting something a little special from Vacancy but it’s actually a very straightforward example of the horror-thriller genre (although, given the current penchant for dumb torture-porn, a simple horror film is starting to hold its own nostalgic appeal).

The first half hour of the film is genuinely unsettling as the couple who are lost, tired and full of repressed emotion abandon their car and seek help from the creepy motel manager. They settle in the scuzzy room and are subjected to a number of terrifyingly random wake up calls before watching videos containing grainy footage of people being viciously murdered and realising, with dawning horror, that the duvet cover looks awfully familiar…

From here it’s a game of cat and mouse as the couple attempt to escape the room without starring in the latest home-movie. If the two leads were unknowns, I would have continued to be terrified. Another rule of horror is that the less known the actor, the more likely you are to see them having their leg prised off in swoon-inducing detail.

But, given the stature of the leads (and the 15 cert) you know that Vacancy isn’t going to descend into the sort of gleeful, excessive violence purveyed by the likes of Saw or Hostel. And while I applaud any filmmaker who doesn’t want to make me watch someone sawing their own arm off, this does suggest that the snuff footage of three masked men killing hotel guests as they beg for their lives is, actually, the horror high point (or low point, depending on which way you look at it).

So while their escape attempts are gripping, well-plotted, varied and even occasionally plausible, from this point the film begins to lose its edge.

Then, of course, there are the horror clichés. To keep the action going, people have to do things they really wouldn’t. So just as in old-style horrors some teenage boy would go down to the cellar to investigate a noise on his own in the dark, so too this pair keep opening doors when they really shouldn’t and then not opening them when they clearly should. With teenagers in the lead roles, you can merrily assume that they’re just thick as pigshit or high on goofballs but when you see the same behaviour from two proper grown ups it does rather highlight the idiocy of a plotline.

Still, it is refreshing not to watch a bunch of hot teenagers breaking down on a highway for a change and, unexpected as it is to see Wilson in a horror role, his laconic air adds plausibility to the part while Beckinsale makes a good fist of the bitchy, skittish wife who can’t let her feelings out. If there’s a message in this film (apart from ‘don’t book a motel with a man watching videos of screaming women’) it seems to be something to do with love and teamwork. Jeez. The things some people will do to avoid marriage counselling.

Vacancy is on general release (15)

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