427) Vacancy (2007) Dir: Nimrod Antal Date Released: April 2007 Date Seen: December 2, 2009 Rating: 4/5
Nimrod Antal may not be an innovative director but he is a canny creator of endearingly sincere B-movies. Vacancy in that sense is an important though not a huge step forward from the clunky sentimentality and cloying cliches of his debut film Kontroll (2003), a fantasy about the warring forces of good and evil in the Hungarian transit system. Thanks to Mark L. Smith's superbly pared down screenplay, Antal does not try to re-create any generic wheels with Vacancy but rather to perfect an existing formula. The Foxes, Amy and David (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale), are lost so they pull over at the wrong motel and end up getting terrorized by Mason (Frank Whaley), the proprietor, who makes snuff films out of security footage. Antal and Smith understand full-well that they're working in the shadow of many lesser films and even a giant or two (Antal winks at Psycho by prominently featuring pewter statues of birds at the motel's front desk). The fun for Antal and Smith and for us is seeing them translate their earnest passion for the genre into details that are both realistic without seeming forced, stylized without seeming preposterous. Everything is in its place and no creative decision ever appears flagrantly mismatched with the film's stock plot. The fact that Antal was given the opportunity to translate Kontroll's success into something this good bodes very well for people who still believe that non-gimmicky mainstream horror films can still be straight-forward and visceral.
We first meet the Foxes right before they're forced to pull over at a seemingly abandoned gas station. They fight amongst each other but their quarrel is grounded in the shitty mundane situation they're stuck with: David has been driving all night while Amy slept soundly next to him thanks to some sleeping pills. They're lost and he naturally is reluctant to ask for directions but once he gets them from the friendly gas station's mechanic (Ethan Embry), he accepts wearily. This is the first sign of Vacancy's mute quality: the emotional brunt of the Foxes's quarrels is genuine and hence it makes you simultaneously commiserate and hate them both for digging into each other over such petty problems. Their squabbling is so unobtrusive that it delivers its emotional payload without any unwarranted exaggeration. The one possible misstep Smith takes, namely in the way that David hints at a past trauma involving their son during their drive, is likewise well-handled: it's only mentioned once more during the film and is never through flashbacks, just brief, guarded exchanges that are emotive without being effusive.
Likewise, once the Foxes make it to the Motel Bates, they react the way people in their extraordinary, albeit generic, situation would. They try to figure out a plan of attack every step of the way and once they know they're being hunted, they never selectively stop being stressed out long enough to be uncharacteristically polite to each other. This doesn't mean they curse each other out but rather that they step on each other's toes in the face of overwhelming movie logic. When the sheriff they call to rescue them comes by, David insists they hold back. From where he's standing, he can't tell whether or not the sheriff is in league with their captors, as a delivery man was earlier in the night. In that sense, Antal and Smith show us his dedication to using the rat-in-a-maze logic of a slasher film to develop the logic of the Foxes's emotions. This runs counter to the nihilism inherent in most contemporary slashers, many of which delight in reminding the viewer that because the killer doesn't need a motive, the logic that governs their actions, and by extension their identities, is inconsequential.
Antal and Smith are such capable storytellers that they even manage to make Mason and his gang relatively human. Though Whaley is done up to look like a bizarro version of Ned Flanders, he never goes far over-the-top. He cusses and screams fine enough but thanks to Whaley's exception performance, he actually looks like he means everything he does, from the way he laughs nervously about only accepting cash to how he laments the fact that the Foxes's got the sheriff involved. Whaley never pulls a Gary Oldman and hence never gives the performance more than it needs (Oldman is wonderful in Leon the Professional but his manic performance is like lightning in a bottle: you can't reproduce that kind of mad genius). He's functional without being sterile just as everyone else in the film's cast is, pulling the viewer in capably without drawing untoward attention to himself. If Antal can make get that kind of performance from Armored's eclectic cast and similarly achieve Vacancy's level of proficiency, he'll have confirmed his place as Hollywood's go-to-guy for smart and hard-earned thrills.