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Vacancy **½
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Wilson and Beckinsale stumble into a house of horrors in director Nimrod Antal's Vacancy.

(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner)

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry, Scott Anderson. Rated R.

Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson play an estranged married couple in Vacancy, but first-time screenwriter Mark L. Smith has a cure for their malaise. It’s therapy, all right, just not of the traditional variety. Amy and David are bitterly divided by the unexplained death of their only son, but Smith shocks them to their senses with brutal efficiency, thrusting them into a macabre snuff-film fantasy and taking a sledgehammer to their lingering differences.

Subtle? Hardly, and the device that gets things moving – the couple’s car breaks down, leaving them to brave the night at a squalid motel only Norman Bates could appreciate – is more than a little familiar. David quickly realizes that strange doings are afoot at the Pinewood, where palm-sized cockroaches crawl through the cracks in the floor and brown water spews from the faucets. Worse yet, the in-room entertainment consists of videotaped snuff, with a live demonstration to follow.

Amy and David would prefer not to stick around for the show, but the motel’s manager (Frank Whaley, ideally cast as a sniveling, psychotic weasel) has other ideas. From the comfort of his office, he monitors their every move, when he’s not perusing his extensive collection of sadistic home movies. When the couple tries to escape, he toys with them – until David discovers that mysterious trap door in the bathroom.

There is nothing groundbreaking about Vacancy. This is a story we’ve seen before, and will undoubtedly see again, though rarely with such a competent cast. Beckinsale and Wilson do the most with what they’re given, and Whaley, of The Doors, is appropriately shifty-eyed as the villain who likes to watch but doesn’t seem inclined to get his hands dirty. Ultimately, though, his dialogue is reduced to a series of misogynistic slurs, spat out with impotent venom.

Director Nimród Antal (Kontroll) keeps the action effectively stylized and the atmosphere tense with creative camerawork and claustrophobic close-ups, and it’s those little touches that distinguish Vacancy from the countless horror stories it recalls. It’s not far removed from the bruising grindhouse cinema recently resurrected by Richard Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino But unlike their epic tribute to the sleaze of yesteryear, it feels more derivative than inspired – scary at times, but in need of a few fresh ideas.

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