Norman Bates' mom would have approved of the Pinewood Motel. Nestled off the Interstate — way off — it's the ideal place to get away from it all, and have it all put you away: permanently. The noisy late night room service and decrepit amenities are simply to die for, too.
Vacancy is a refreshingly gory-free excursion into terror with classy, mood-setting Bernard Herrmanesque music, a stylish opening credit sequence, and Hitchcockian tension-building suspense with ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances, and incompetent police not prepared for what actually goes on at the quiet motel.
Amy and David are the two ordinary people whose failing relationship is in need of some serious bonding. There's nothing like a bunch of psychos trying to kill you to work out the kinks in a rocky marriage and bring you closer together; at least if you can't live together, you might as well die together.
The barbs start flying when Amy wakes up to find they're lost on an empty, winding road; David's shortcut to nowhere. Empty except for that cute little raccoon in the middle of it—hey Dave, watch out! The car skids off the road and breaks something in the process, forcing them to stop at the creepy, desolate, gas-station-stuck-in-time that appears in many horror movies these days.
The attendant pops up, all smiles and giggles—at two in the morning—and gladly helps them out as he pops the hood, does something, then sends them on their merry way with confusing directions to get back on the Interstate and a lit sparkler. Now maybe I'm just naturally paranoid, but I would never trust any overly nice gas station attendant who refuses to be paid and insists on giving you a lit sparkler near flammable gas tanks at two in the morning.
No sooner do they get going when the car breaks down again, forcing them back to the gas station. The attendant is gone now, but say, there's that nice Bates, oops, sorry—Pinewood Motel over yonder. Better rent a room for the night and worry about the car in the morning after a good night's sleep, right?
The screaming and crying they hear when they enter the registration office should have clued them in right away, but David, intent on hitting that annoying bell on the desk, isn’t swayed. Mason, the motel manager, pops his head out to see who it is. He quips about boring nights when they mention the ominous sounds, and he goes back into the office to turn whatever he's watching off.
When you finally get a good look at Mason, you realize he's stuck in time, too. Seventies, I'd say. He's an oily type of creepy, and there’s something sinister behind those beady little eyes of his and that snake-like tilt of the head. He insists on giving them the guest suite that has hot and cold running cockroaches, stiff bed linen that could fold itself, and a wonderful mix of banged-up videotapes filled with lots of screaming, pleading people being horribly killed by Michael Myers wannabes. This is some guest suite.
With nothing playing on the TV, David shuffles through those videos and pops one into the player. As Amy tells him to tune it down, he slowly recognizes the "set" in the tape looks awfully like their guest suite. Bingo! Vacancy now shifts into gear and the hairs stand on the back of your neck just as his do.
The fight to stay alive begins, and while Vacancy is not a blockbuster, it does have its share of shocks and nerve-wracking mayhem to make it all worthwhile. No wimpy victim-fodder here, either. Even as Amy and David panic and bicker and scramble to find a way out of their dire situation, they suck it up and work on staying alive. Horror film victims that actually don't want to be victims is another refreshing change of pace from the usual "hurry up and slowly die" fare inundating us these days, don't you think?
Ironically, as they struggle to find a way out of their terminal accommodations, they invariably find themselves scrambling back into them, again and again. They can't run and they really can't hide for long. Will they survive? And who can they trust? Who is involved in the deadly room service that goes on at the Pinewood Motel?
An interesting twist has David and Amy alternately take the lead in saving their necks, and director Nimrod Antal goes against horror movie type by playing with our expectations toward the end as the small body count goes higher.
Vacancy is an entertaining homicidal psycho-buddies along the "road less traveled by" scenario often used in horror. What helps it stand out are the performances by Frank Whaley, Luke Wilson, and Kate Beckinsale that provide tense moments of terror, anguish, and momentary triumph in a straightforward and suspenseful mix of classic horror elements.
And I like rooting for the would-be victims: payback can be such an entertaining b*tch after all.