Monday, January 5, 2009

Weighing In: Vacancy

Moral of the story: invest in a decent cell phone and GPS device before driving on unlit, deserted backroads. Vacancy (2007), is an average, but valiant attempt to combine the Hitchcockian themes of old with the "Slice 'em and Dice 'em" schlock of new. Directed by the relatively unknown Nimrod Antal, Vacancy is surprisingly watchable, especially in light of the seemingly infinite pile of drek pumped out by Hollywood recently. I suspect that Antal did his homework before working on the film.

The plot centers around David Fox (Luke Wilson) and his wife Amy (Kate Beckinsale) as the prototypical modern sparring couple. They are good-looking, snarky, egotistical, stubborn -- you know, all of the qualities that make for a healthy marriage these days. What's more, they are in the midst of a seemingly irreparable marital breakdown, precipitated largely by the untimely death of their son. Now, maybe I'm giving too much credit here, but I think Antal actually does a decent job of portraying the couple's decay via sleek camera tricks and well thought out framing of people and objects. Take for example the following: in the opening sequence, we rarely see the couple together in the same shot despite that they are seated less than six inches away from each other in the same car; or the use of the car's rear-view mirror for shots of David and side-view mirror for shots of Amy -- perhaps in an attempt to blur image from inner-self, or, to further demonstrate the disconnect amongst the couple.

After several minutes of low blows and gratuitous insults (during which David cruelly mocks Amy's dependence on a "cocktail" of anti-depressants), the couple finds themselves off-course and, big surprise, experiencing mechanical problems after hitting roadkill. They stumble upon a nearby gas station where they are greeted by a nameless, quirky attendant (Ethan Embry), whom we immediately suspect we'll see again. The Embry character claims to have fixed the problem (but we know better) and the couple is back on the road. Expectedly, the car breaks down again, fatefully stranding David and Amy in the middle of Nowheresville, USA. They are both lost and broken down -- you guessed it, literally and figuratively -- and this is when the real trouble begins. How convenient.

Sticking to the formula, Amy's cell phone predictably doesn't work, and even more curious, David doesn't even have a cell phone, so they are left with no choice but to wander back into town. They arrive at the campy and outdated Pinewood Motel where they meet resident night manager/local oddball, Mason (Frank Whaley) who is so obviously sociopathic, it's a wonder they didn't run when they had the chance. Rather, they are strong-armed into renting a room (the "honeymoon suite," naturally), and the couple opts to spend the night until they can call for a tow truck in the morning (I think critic Dan Schneider would call this the "Dumbest Possible Action").

Plot aside for a moment, I was a bit disappointed with the choice of casting for Mason's part; I just didn't find Whaley all that convincing. For one, his character is way overacted -- the darting eyes, the forced accent, the sinister sniveling -- it's a dead giveaway that he's a deranged maniac. Second, his uncanny resemblance to Kip from Napoleon Dynamite is too much of a distraction to take him seriously. On the other hand, what made Anthony Perkins so perfect as Norman Bates in Psycho was his subtle boyish charm and effortless believability. We want to like him, we even sort of relate to him (well, at least until he confesses that "a boy's best friend is his mother"). Recall the famous scene where we practically root for Marion Crane's (Janet Leigh) car to sink to the bottom of the swamp so that Bates doesn't get caught. That was the allure of Perkins. That was what made Hitchcock a master filmmaker: his ability to implicate and beguile us. Not so much with Whaley. Didn't Antal learn anything from Gus Van Sant's trainwreck casting of Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates in the1998 remake? At least do what Tobe Hooper did in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Cast unknown amateurs -- it actually works!

In any event, after stumbling upon a number of disturbing videos tapes in their room, the couple realizes that they are the centerpiece of a murderous snuff film. From here on out, the film is an extended cat-and-mouse chase between the couple and a band of violent weirdos (including the aforementioned Ethan Embry character), which admittedly, I found engaging for most of the time. On a positive note, Antal does a nice job implicating the audience as voyeurs a la Hitchcock; he forces us to perversely observe the couple's frantic plight. After all, is there no greater invasion of privacy than peeping on an unsuspecting couple at of all places, a roach motel?

Moreover, Antal continues with the theme of discord: his use of window frames to separate the quarreling couple or the placement of an upright shotgun that physically divides the two when seated in a police vehicle are nice touches. But unfortunately, the film succumbs to too many of the now ubiquitous horror cliches: the bumbling sheriff -- one day away from retirement, one badge above mall security, the impeccably-timed power outages, or the phone lines that never seem to work. And like most things too good to be true, the film's ending is a predictable letdown, in contrast to say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, whose finale is to this day, still amongst the best and most memorable in recent film history (at a minimum, within the horror genre). I guess hoping for an original ending is too much to ask for these days.

But maybe I'm being too harsh. At just over 80 minutes, the film is relatively engaging and not a complete waste of time. And besides the contrived ending, I actually liked where the film was heading despite my (justifiable) apprehension of a neat and tidy wrap-up. Even the usually blase Wilson isn't all that terrible.

I wrote earlier that Antal must have done his homework. What I meant was, despite Antal's overt "borrowing" from Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,* he does so tactfully, and when executed in that way, one always scores points. So, while imperfect, Antal puts forth a commendable effort at minimizing the gore in favor of a more intelligent portrayal of yes, contemporary issues -- much like Hitchcock did so skillfully decades earlier. The only thing he leaves out is a domineering mother...

* E.g. 1) the opening title sequence/closing credits of Vacancy practically mirrors the vertical and horizontal typeface and layout famously utilized in Psycho; 2) the inclusion of a desolate gas station and its creepy attendant foreshadow impending danger in both Vacancy and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; 3) in both Vacancy and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there is really no explanation for the killers' motivations (compare with A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween where revenge is the main factor).

--DS, Weightstaff


Anonymous said...

excellent analogy...atually the original scare tactic movies seem so cheesy and seeing it in present day makes it so much more believable even being as far fetched as it is.

Anonymous said...


i check the weight every morning hoping for some great new revelation in the music world, perhaps a flash back to an oft-overlooked song, album, artist, or maybe even what trey ate for breakfast last Tuesday, but no, instead im confronted with a movie review for a mediocre movie. great review and all, but who cares??? was levon helm cast as the killer? was the soundtrack comprised entirely of rare outtakes from Blonde on Blonde? no, of course not, so damn it DS, get your act together and start being the poster that all woman want to be with, and all men want to be like.

and this goes for the rest of the weight staff office.

Anonymous said...

Don't know anything about this movie. Don't even know how I got to this blog. But would like to mention that I recently read that Luke Wilson wants to make a film about Rick Danko - after the breakup of the Band.

How did I - huge Band fan that I am - get to this website via reading about John Hiatt?