Coming amidst all the lopped-off limbs and revving chainsaws that have dominated the horror genre in just recent years, 'Vacancy' is somewhat old fashioned in its approach, emphasizing suspense over sadism, and bare-knuckled tension over brutality.
Like a great, undiscovered '70s drive-in flick, the film's premise is deceptively simple. Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale star as David and Amy Fox, a couple on the brink of divorce after the accidental death of their infant son. Only days away from signing the papers and parting ways for good, the long-bickering pair is forced to stay at a roadside motel together after their car breaks down. Once inside their room, they find a stack of snuff films, and quickly realize that the room itself is rigged with cameras, and if they don't escape, they'll be the next victims to end up on videotape.
As David and Amy's situation worsens, they come to realize that they are not the victims of some mere random psychopath. Instead, the seemingly benign hotel clerk (Frank Whaley, doing a full-on Norman Bates impression) is in cahoots with a band of local thugs, who like to capture, torture and kill random motorists, then sell their videotaped exploits on eBay to the highest bidder.
It is here where 'Vacancy' could have followed the path of so many recent torture flicks, but in a rare show of restraint on the part of the filmmakers, it elevates itself (if just barely) above the level of purely gratuitous. Director Nimrod Antal (yes, you got that name right), working off of a tightly-wound script by newcomer Mark L. Smith, does not linger on the violence. Instead, we see only brief snippets of Mason's past crimes in one pivotal scene, and even then these static-laden images are there only to suggest the fate that may await our heroes.
Indeed, unlike so many "torture porn" flicks of late, in 'Vacancy' we are always on the side of the heroes, not their attackers. Aided by committed (if somewhat bland) performances by Wilson and Beckinsale, Antal clearly intends 'Vacancy' to be more of a survival tale than a gore-fest, and accordingly never pulls away from David and Amy. No sympathy is elicited for the villains, so even though 'Vacancy' exploits some very dark places of human ugliness for thrills, we don't feel dirty once it's all over. In this way, 'Vacancy' arguably has more in common with the classic, suspense-driven thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock than it is does its more modern ultra-violent brethren.
Of course, 'Vacancy' is nowhere near as good a Hitchcock classic, nor does it aim particularly high in any other capacity. I was particularly disappointed that the film never makes any attempt to subvert, critique or even analyze the cultural implications of Mason's brutality-for-sale video company -- instead, it is simply offered up as a plot device, nothing more.
Still, like the most enjoyably trashy drive-in flicks of yesteryear, 'Vacancy' is so committed to its cliches that it succeeds on its own terms. In the end, the film wants nothing more than to take a universally scary premise, ratchet up the tension to a near-unbearable level, and then leave us shredding our nails waiting to see if our heroes will make it out alive. On that level, it certainly succeeds -- it's well shot, tightly edited and carefully modulated for just about every taut moment of its lightning-fast 85-minute runtime (only a dull climactic scene disappoints). I may not have learned anything about human nature from 'Vacancy,' but I can't say I wasn't riveted by nearly every single second of it.
Sony brings 'Vacancy' to Blu-ray with an excellent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. Since the film has made a very speedy trip to video, I happened to catch the movie in a theater only a few weeks ago, and with that experience still fresh in my mind, I can honestly say I found this high-def version superior.
'Vacancy' is an intentionally dark film, but still has a smooth, almost slick look that keeps it from looking trashy or cheap. The image is not glossy, per se, but nor is it grainy or overprocessed -- it's just natural and realistic. Director of photography Andrzej Sekula lights every scene just right -- what we need to see is visible, and all that we shouldn't is bathed in blacks. It's a rich and creepy look that this Blu-ray disc captures perfectly.
Most impressive are the blacks, and the level of detail visible in the shadows. Whites are not blown out, nor is the image overly brightened. The result is a vivid, detailed and very three-dimensional presentation that retains a "grindhouse" aesthetic. Colors are very pure, with even the vivid neon reds and blues rock solid with no bleeding or noise visible. Fleshtones are also just about spot-on, with only a bit of a green cast at times. The print is immaculate, with not a single speck of dirt of blemishes visible.
To be sure, even with a superior transfter like this, 'Vacancy' ultimately isn't the type of blockbuster that screams "demo material," but for what it is, it looks terrific on Blu-ray.
As any horror fan knows well, sound is integral if you want to truly terrify an audience. 'Vacancy' succeeds surprisingly well in this department, with a very fine-tuned uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48kHz/16-bit/6.9mbps) that more than delivers the chills.
In terms of sound design, 'Vacancy' is pretty sparse. The most prominent elements of the track are dialogue, eerie atmospheric effects, and a strong, driving score by Paul Haslinger. Surround use is not overwhelming, but it is finely attuned to nuance. Minor sounds are often directed to the rears, turning something simple -- such as a creak, a doorknob turning or a window breaking -- into a sign of imminent danger. Dynamics also excel, with deep, tight bass and pitch-perfect dialogue reproduction. And for a movie that is quite talky (especially in its first half), even the quietest dialogue and sounds are distinct in the mix -- there are no volume matching issues here. Very well done.
'Vacancy' comes to Blu-ray with a set of extras identical to the standard-def DVD version. Unfortunately, it's a pretty slim supplements package, but at this Blu-ray edition does have a leg up on the DVD, since most of these bonuses are presented in super-slick 1080i/MPEG-2 video.
The main attraction is the 21-minute featurette "Checking In: The Cast & Crew of 'Vacancy.'" This one's generally a straightforward behind-the-scenes piece, with a variety of on-set interviews plus a smattering of behind-the-scenes clips. However, the nature of the comments here thankfully cut a little bit deeper than just plot recap, with intelligent analysis of the characters, the story's more Hitchcockian elements (which for once are not strictly hyperbole) and a quick mention of the film's understated visual style. Included among the interviews are director Nimrod Antal, screenwriter Mark L. Smith, director of photography Andrzej Sekula, stunt coordinator Lance Gilbert and actors Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale, Frank Whaley and Ethan Embry.
The rest of the extras are all comprised of excised or additional footage. There is a short (2 minute) Alternate Ending, which does frame the story in a different way and is thus worth a quick watch. Far more unpleasant is the 8-minute montage of "Extended Snuff Picks." This material is only seen in glimpses in the final cut, and quite frankly I could have lived without seeing it presented here in more unexpurgated fashion. Finally, there is one genuine Deleted Scene, the 2-minute "Racoon Encounter," but it's completely forgettable. (Note that "Raccoon Encounter" is the only extra presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only, and the quality is clearly inferior.)
Last but not least are trailers for six other Sony Blu-ray titles: 'Ghost Rider,' 'Premonition,' 'Perfect Stranger,' 'Underworld: Evolution,' 'The Messengers' and 'Hostel Part II.' Sadly, there is no trailer for 'Vacancy' itself included in the bunch.
Had 'Vacancy' been made twenty years ago, it likely would have been just another exploitation flick unspooling at the local drive-in. Now, thanks to the success of "torture porn" flicks like the 'Saw' and 'Hostel' series, it's a major studio movie with A-list stars. In this case, the filmmakers behind 'Vacancy' have wisely decided to focus less on brutality and more on milking a very tense situation in the tradition of the classic Hitchcockian thriller. The resulting film doesn't fully succeed, but it is nevertheless a cut above most of the gratuitous "torture" flicks currently glutting up cinemas.
Sony has definitely produced a solid Blu-ray release for 'Vacancy.' The video and audio are first-rate, and although you won't get a ton of extras, there are a couple of notable goodies. Depending on your taste for horror, this one may not be worth a purchase, but if you're looking for a tense thriller to rent on a Saturday night, you'll definitely want to check into 'Vacancy.'