Saturday, 12 May 2007

Vacancy (2007)

Frank Whaley and Ned Flanders: separated at birth?

Vacancy has a really simple premise that's so barebones and generic that one wonders why this movie should merit their movie tickets. A bickering couple get lost on a highway detour and end up at a motel, whose owner intends to kill them, and film their deaths for a snuff film series. So here's the thing: as the movie went on, I found myself liking this movie, because its director Nimrod Antal does it in an unexpected manner so unexpectedly well that it actually stands out from the slasher and tourist trip gone wrong film genres that are currently the rage in cinemas.

What Vacancy has that the rest of the genre films I just mentioned don't boils down to just one thing: its director Nimrod Antal, who brings with him a distinctly (continental) European sensibility and production values that show up everywhere, from cinematography, script, to even scene composition. Antal starts it all off with two farreaching decisions - a strong rejection of the grainy, handheld camera aesthetic of recent American horror and slasher cinema, and a rejection of its much older fake scare technique. Robbing himself of these two easy clutches creates a challenge for the director that ultimately makes Vacancy far more superior than it should ever be, given its premise.

You'll notice that for a horror film, the cinematography of Vacancy is highly stylised. This may not be Hitchcock, but the director, set designer, and director of photography sure know how to create suspense and claustrophobia, as well as create the impression that this is visually different from other slasher/horror flicks with similar premises. Every scene is shot from an angle that's not quite conventional; every other scene involves the artful use of mirrors and reflections, images from second-hand sources; and once trapped in the confines of the motel room, the couple are framed in the camera so tightly, even in chase sequences, that one cannot but feel their claustrophobia. A director who bothers and has the imagination to set up scenes like this certainly knows how to freshen up a tired genre.

Elsewhere, the scriptwriters with their superb writing, make the movie far stronger than it deserves to be. Of course, one can't expect Oscar calibre dialogue, Kauffman level intricacies or Lynchian surrealism, but Antal and Smith pair the unsettling (but realistic) visual style with equally unsettling but realistic villains. This may be a slasher film, but there are no hockey-masked, superhuman killers, no supernatural self-resurrecting soldiers of darkness. Just one very bored and mundane looking hotel receptionist who, for a living, makes snuff videos where people really get killed. It's just a job, y'know, that comes with necessary henchmen who aren't remotely evil, but just doing what would be a mundane job. That involves killing tourists who stay at the motel. And probably selling the videos to other bored but ordinary people who aren't evil, but just get off watching snuff videos. The banality of evil, indeed.

And in accordance to the design of the movie, you should be even more pleased to know that Vacancy has the smartest protagonists ever in slasher movies. Okay, that they got lost on a highway and quarrel themselves pass obvious signs that Something Is Wrong With This Motel are really stupid, but brilliantly stupid in a normal, reality-based people way. There's not much to say about how the director, writer, and cinematographer handle their attempt to escape their fate as reluctant snuff film stars, except to say that whatever happens is shot with style and competence that is almost never seen now in American slasher and horror films with bigger budgets.

There's only one flaw I can see in having a European team produce a slasher flick. You'd get brilliant and thoughtful cinematography and outstanding direction, but at the cost of having a few slips here and there. One major slip occurs near the resolution, where apparently the most basic slasher rule gets broken - the Last Girl (Kate Beckinsdale) must always be the sole survivor!

First published at incinemas on 5 July 2007

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