Motel Matches 

Faulty horror burns out

It's a classic set-up. A young divorcing couple gets lost on a dark back road and their car breaks down after a local yokel messes around under the hood. Walking two miles in the middle of the night to a desolate motor inn puts David (Luke Wilson) and Amy (Kate Beckinsale) in a grungy motel room complete with surveillance cameras and VHS snuff films of former guests being butchered by masked men. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't develop Vacancy much past the opening act. Plot craters open up like sinkholes after a flood as Mason (Frank Whaley), a creepy night manager, and his two masked cohorts terrorize the couple by knocking loudly on their doors and walls. That's right, LOUDLY! Even for a trashy little hide-and-seek movie, Vacancy is a disappointing excursion.

There's a current spate of movies dabbling with the idea of snuff films as a tantalizing topic. American Cannibal is a worthy satire while The Condemned is a barely worthy exploitation job. Vacancy is unworthy horror. In 1983, David Cronenberg incorporated all this and more in a nasty little picture called Videodrome. Even by today's standards, Videodrome retains its shock value, due to Cronenberg's ingenious ability to impose a futuristic mentality over sex, violence and "reality" TV. In an age when anyone with a computer can go online and witness people being decapitated at the hands of deranged terrorists, Vacancy comes on like a postdated stab at provoking naive gasps.

The picture breaks a golden rule of dramaturgy that a gun exposed in the first act must go off in the third. Blood-curdling screams of a woman's frantic voice greet David and Amy when they first walk into the motel's lobby. They are comforted to learn that the wretched cries come from a "movie" that Mason watches in his multi-monitor anteroom. The impetus for the violent shrieking from Mason's flick becomes clear when they play a videotape of a woman being tortured and murdered in the very same room that they occupy. The filmmakers are careful to let canned screaming convey the "real death" aspects of the video while we wait dutifully for the snuff-film-within-the-movie to emerge within the context of David and Amy's story—reasonably in the climax. But the pledged event never transpires.

Instead, Amy and David represent dim thinking even by slasher film standards when they discover a trap door in their bathroom that leads into a tunnel that runs to Mason's office. The frightened pair forgets to grab a pistol hanging over the office door before being chased back to their room. As the master of scary festivities, Mason is a textbook psycho that Frank Whaley (Pulp Fiction) pushes into the realm of caricature with oversized glasses and a mustache with a life of its own. Whaley's near-comic performance does little to distract from the keystone cops aspect of the two generic monster-men who bumble around the grounds and disappear for long stretches of time.

Director Nimrod Antal made an international splash with his Hungarian film Kontroll, a drama about a crew of misfits wandering the Budapest subway system. Unfortunately, Antal has no instinct for horror, specifically for layering information and suspense toward shocking emotional crescendos. You can't correctly call Vacancy a "horror" movie. What newbie screenwriter Mark Smith has generated is a disconnected hodgepodge of unsupported "scary" elements that indicate, rather than gain, momentum. Snuff films are not good for your mental health. This movie is just not good.

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