Directed by Nimród Antal. Starring Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry. (2007, R, 80 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 27, 2007
I recently drove from Austin to Reno and back via old Route 66, and I am here to tell you that the darker the night, the lonelier the road, the more inviting those quaint, Fifties-era roadside travel courts and motor lodges appear. But – and this is some serious advice, friend – if the colorful, angular signage doesn't advertise "free Wi-Fi in every room" but instead brags about air conditioning and iceboxes, steer clear and stop not. Some of them-there proprietor types are really, truly straight out of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and there's nothing more unnerving than noticing (too late!) that the mailbox of your chosen rest stop sports the dual-doom address "1313" or that a legion of unseen peepers eagle-eye your every move as you hurriedly, frantically unpack the car and triple-check your quarters' dodgy looking dead bolt. Motel hell, indeed. Such is the case, also, with Vacancy, a creepy, well-executed exercise in back-roads paranoia that might as well have had onetime Chevy shill Dinah Shore shrieking, "See the USA and be DOA; America's the grimmest land of all," for all the good it's going to do for the Airstream travel set. Wilson and Beckinsale play a variation on the old bickering couple theme who, after nearly killing themselves trying to avoid the overemployed critter-in-the-road gambit, are forced to check in to the rundown motel of nutty Mason (Whaley) only to find they're pawns (pawns, I tell you!) in a horrific game of decidedly deadly cat and mouse between management and guests. Antal directed a far more interesting bit of cinematic weirdness (in the good sense, I mean) by the name of Kontroll a few years back. That film mined the innate subterranean suspense of the Budapest metro for every single kilo of mystery it could get its paws on. Vacancy, which mixes bits of Psycho with Sliver (Stone! Baldwin! Berenger! Remember?) and still manages to come up wanting, works best when it slows down to catch its breath – which it doesn't do nearly enough. Wilson and Beckinsale, as the couple on the rocks, do their damnedest to go along for the creepfest, but nothing in Vacancy manages to come anywhere close to the quiet and steadily mounting dread of the real thing, much less the purview of Norman Bates or his beloved mother.