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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

HubrisWeen 3, Day 22: Vacancy (2007)

Written by Mark L. Smith
Directed by Nimrod Antal

Kate Beckinsale:  Amy Fox
Luke Wilson:  David Fox
Frank Whaley:  Mason the Desk Clerk
Ethan Embry:  Mechanic

Well, after the last few HubrisWeen movies (which have been near or over two hours long) I'm ready for something short and sweet. Thankfully Vacancy fits the bill at least partially, since it's only 85 minutes long. I've always liked movies that knew what they wanted to do and got that done without padding themselves out to epic length, so it's nice to know from the outset that there isn't likely to be a lot of wasted time in this one. Lean and mean is the (hopeful) order of the day. And given that it's a siege horror movie, one would expect the filmmakers to realize that the narrative has to keep moving once things jump off.

It should also be mentioned that evil hospitality is a motif for stories going back literally thousands of years--Procrustes was one of Poseidon's demigod sons who had an iron bed that supposedly fit everyone in the world. And he made sure of that whenever he had a visitor by either stretching people out on a rack if they were too short or lopping parts of their legs off if they were too tall to fit. That's from old-timey days of yore, millenia before Norman Bates was changing the sheets in all his guest cabins or Farmer Vincent opened his motel and smoked meats emporium.

You know what sucks? Driving at night when you can't even listen to the radio because someone else in the car is sleeping. You know what's worse? Waking up when your husband pulls a 540 degree spinout because he didn't want to hit a raccoon that was in the middle of the road while driving at night. David and Amy Fox continue what is obviously a long-simmering argument with each other as various other facts about their situation become apparent. Wherever they're going, David's taking a winding secondary route to get there thanks to traffic backed up on "the interstate". It is strongly suggested that he doesn't actually know where they are thanks to taking back roads. The car starts making a distressing noise and there's at least the possibility that they'll be sleeping by the side of the road if they have a breakdown. Oh, and David took "some of those trucker pills" in an attempt to stay awake longer and cover more miles rather than stop somewhere for an overnight rest.

Some more bickering transpires (and the car's clock lets the audience know it's about 1:30 in the morning). David tries to start a conversation that does not involve him or his wife griping about each other's faults and Amy shuts him down in seconds. Right after the fourth or fifth "hey, why didn't you do it some other way" exchange the car makes another distressing noise and David pulls over at a conveniently located gas station that seems to be closed for the night. "Seems to be", because the counter guy pops up by the driver's side window and startles the heck out of David and Amy. David says he knows where he is--he's driving to Downey (which turns out to be some distance behind him); the mechanic takes pity of David's total incompetence and offers to take a look at the engine before going home. While the menfolk are looking at car parts and frowning Amy takes a look at a photo of her next to a smiling child and starts to cry. Her back story (and David's, for that matter) reminds me of a literary anecdote. Ernest Hemingway once said that the best story he ever wrote was only six words long:  "For sale--Baby shoes. Never worn."

The mechanic says the fan blade got bent and someone with a better-equipped garage can fix it, but he can't. At least he doesn't charge the couple for not being able to fix their problem and wishes them safe travels after giving them directions to the interstate and a free sparkler (which does not sound like the smartest thing in the world to give away at a gas station). Shortly after they realize that they don't know how far they're supposed to be going, the car makes a much more frightening noise and craps out completely. David goes to point a flashlight at the engine, which is all he really knows how to do here. With the prospect of a long walk to the gas station or further along the road ahead of them, Amy and David continue to bicker in a manner that makes me regret the movie's 85 minutes long. They better face a menace that repairs their marriage, and quick.

Off David goes down the road and Amy catches up. David talks about how "Charlie" would have liked seeing all the starts that are out that night and Amy says they never took him anywhere because David's job was too important. I'm starting to think the screenwriters were playing Tragic Backstory Couple Argument Bingo while writing this stuff. They get back to the now-closed gas station and realize they have to walk back to the car. Or they can go to that hotel right next to the service center and get a room for the night rather than walk back to the car and sleep there. Sounds like a plan.

They walk into the lobby (which, like the outside of the hotel, looks to have been decorated some time around the pre-Beatles Sixties) and hear a woman screaming in terror. The desk clerk peeks around the office door when he sees someone has actually entered the lobby and explains the screams as a horror movie he was watching to keep himself awake for the overnight shift. After an endless customer-service moment where the counter guy takes his sweet time changing out a couple bills for dimes (for the phone booth outside, which looks to be of similar vintage to the hotel), David finds out that the closest garage will also be shut down for the night and that he won't be able to get an answer there until the morning. Amy thinks that sleeping in the car is a much better choice than spending another thirty seconds in the hotel and David decides to stay overnight just to get on her bad side a little more than he already is. The clerk, framed and shot to look off-center and distressing, informs the couple that they can have the "honeymoon suite" for the regular rate but that they have to pay in cash and show a photo ID. David does so, because there are no other options.

After they leave, the desk clerk pockets David's drivers' license and goes back into his office to watch whatever it was that had a woman screaming at the top of her lungs. The room turns out to be pretty sedate, all things considered:  I was expecting some horror from the legendary Gobbler hotel, the swankiest spot in Wisconsin. Amy hates it on sight and David isn't any more thrilled; the cockroach big enough to steal your wallet by the light switch doesn't help anything. Oh, and there's chunky brown liquid rust that comes out of the bathroom faucet. And the sheets are pretty horrible looking; during the conversation when they're bedding down for the night the conversation turns to telling Amy's parents about the couple's imminent divorce. For the possibly first time, David apologizes for screwing things up as badly as he did. He's talking specifically about getting off the interstate, but it could be for everything that's gone wrong in his marriage at this point.

Then the phone rings--but nobody's on the other line. And someone starts hammering at their room's front door. David, being a moron, goes to see who it is and there's nobody there when he opens the door. Things escalate when there's a second phone call with nobody talking on the other end and more door pounding--this time from the connecting door from the couple's room to another (no doubt equally nasty hotel room). The hammering escalates and then there's a knock at the room's front door. When Amy tries to call the front desk the phone is dead and David goes over to complain at the front desk in person. The night clerk tells David that there's nobody else staying at the hotel, so he must not be hearing anything. Then he decides that there might actually be someone in the next room over and says he'll go straighten whoever it is out, taking a decorative pistol from a wall hanging with him. David goes back to the room and prepares to go to sleep.

The television doesn't get any stations, as it turns out, but there's a pile of unlabeled VHS tapes and a VCR on top of the television. David grabs the top tape on the stack and pops it into the player, since there is literally nothing else to do in the room. It turns out to be some kind of horror movie where a man is being strung up from the ceiling and stabbed; the second tape features two women being attacked and murdered. And David realizes that the room where that murder is taking place is the bridal suite of the motel he and his wife are staying in. Looking around the room, David realizes that there are different camera angles being shown, so there must be hidden cameras if his rising fears are going to be confirmed. He finds a couple of them in the most chilling scene in the film so far.

Amy and David start working through their denial as fast as they can when Amy selects a third tape and it's got another snuff film on it. Then someone starts rattling the door of the room and the lights go out, then back on, over and over again. During one of the times the lights come back on a masked man in a jumpsuit is standing in the room behind David, but he doesn't see the guy. Amy tries calling 911 but there's no cell service out in the sticks, wherever they are. David reasons that the killer(s) heard them watching the TV so they know that he and his wife are going to try and run for it--Amy realizes the desk clerk gave them the Murder Room so that they'd watch the tapes and be more terrified when the attackers went after them. While searching for a way out of the room the couple finds an apple that Amy was eating in the car; someone got it out of their car, brought it to the hotel, put it in the bathroom while neither of them saw it and then got out. That's a bit on the impossible side, but it's happened.

David plans to make a run for the trees surrounding the hotel and gas station, figuring that at night their assailants will be at a disadvantage. But there's a masked man waiting for them there, and another one shows up when they run a different direction. Amy loses her cell phone during the run back to the Honeymoon Suite and now it's siege-horror time with the couple stuck in a room and at least three assailants outside. The attackers start pounding on the door again, trying to frighten the pair so they'll give a nice performance when it's time for them to die. David thinks that he needs to get to the phone outside in order to stand a chance of calling help. His plan is to have Amy at the bathroom window attracting attention while he goes for the phone booth outside. Also, thank fuck the bickering has stopped now that the stakes are life or death.

David gets to the phone booth (which has lights that come on automatically when he closes the door on it, giving him and the audience a jolt because he just increased his visibility while trying to sneak around). He calls 911 but the dispatch operator sure sounds like the front desk clerk to me. Just as the clerk tips his hand to David a car smashes through the phone booth and chases David back into his hotel room. He and Amy ransack the room looking for anything that can be used as a weapon, but the snuff filmmakers aren't interested in playing fair. David smashes the bathroom mirror and gets a nice big shard of glass to use as a dagger, which is really smart and probably not something I would have thought of in the same situation.

Unfortunately, all those cameras hidden around the room feed to a bank of monitors and recording decks--the clerk knows exactly what they're doing. But David's counting on that. He's thrown towels over some of the cameras but the one pointed at Amy sleeping in the corner is still functional--and he's counting on that. While she's the only thing the attackers can look at, he's going through the snuff films at double-speed looking for clues as to what the killers tend to do so he'll be able to capitalize on any mistakes they make when they come into the room. That's another really good idea, and bravo to the screenwriter for making his characters realistically smart and capable without giving them any material advantages. They're still outnumbered and outgunned. While looking through one of the tapes David notices that the killers walk out of the bathroom even though the window in that room is nailed shut. There's got to be some way into and out of there that neither victim-to-be noticed. David blocks off the cameras and starts poking around, finding a trap door in the floor next to the tub and underneath the crusty throw rug. There's a tunnel under it, but they don't know where it goes and don't have flashlights or night vision goggles to see anything down there.

And before they can decide to stay or go (or figure out a way to block the trapdoor, not that it would stop anyone from coming through a door or window), a semi truck pulls up into the parking lot. Amy starts pounding on the window to get the trucker's attention and he ambles over to their room. David and Amy try to tell the trucker to look behind him when they see two of their attackers creeping up behind him with knives, but he can't hear them through the window. Just before the knife-toting killers get to the trucker the desk clerk gives him a box of VHS tapes and says they're "the good stuff". I think every single character that's shown up in the film so far other than the Foxes are conspirators for the snuff film ring (the jury is still out on the garage mechanic, but I'm very suspicious of him).

For lack of any better options, David and Amy drop down into the tunnel, which turns out to have light bulbs in there so the killers can see where they're going. Intriguingly enough, there's side tunnels off of the main one so there's quite the elaborate Great Escape re-enactment down under the hotel. Amy has a panic attack in the tunnel and needs to be coached along. Amy's anxiety levels go through the stratosphere when they come across a colony of several dozen rats, but she refrains from screaming so the killers don't hear where they are. Eventually the tunnel leads to another trap door in the floor of the control room / editing studio, which turns out to be right behind the manager's office. Nobody's in there right now, but the snuff films' greatest hits are playing. Incidentally, every time one of the murder tapes is shown it's absolutely not played for comic effect--the people "starring" in them are terrified and in pain, and the true horror of how little control they have over the situation is stressed. Some of them beg and some scream and some try to fight, and they're all going to die in a rigged game so someone can sell tapes of their murders to whoever it is that wants them.

Amy finds a working phone calls 911 but the desk clerk comes back before she can give any information about where they are--just that someone's trying to kill her and her husband. Thankfully the dispatch officer can trace the call if they don't think it's a prank; unfortunately the clerk sees the phone out of its cradle and hears the operator, so he knows the Foxes know about the tunnels and have called the authorities. I didn't think the stakes could get raised any higher, but they did. I'm quite impressed with the way the movie works with essentially one large location to keep changing things up. It's sort of the horror film version of the silent comedy The General, where there's several different ways that one train chases another over a series of tracks.

One of the killers goes down in the tunnels after the couple and the clerk tells the other one up on the surface what's up. He jumps down from the suite bathroom so the Foxes don't know that they're caught between the two murderers. They wind up taking the side tunnel and live for the moment out of sheer dumb luck. They've had enough bad fortune that I'm willing to let that slide, honestly. They were due some kind of a break. The tunnel winds up leading to the garage / gas station (A-ha! I knew it!). David shoves a tool cabinet over to block the trapdoor and he and Amy try to rest for a minute and take stock of things. While the two victims-to-be comfort each other they both apologize to each other about what happened in the past, hinting at what happened to their infant son Charlie. David tells his wife that once they live through the current situation, they get to start fresh and have all the old sins and transgressions against each other taken out of the permanent record. They kiss, which is the first positive emotion they've expressed to each other in the film.

A police car pulls up into the hotel parking lot and David says they can't trust that the cop is on their side--when Amy called 911 she didn't give their location so the policeman could easily be in on the snuff film ring. As far as anyone in the audience can tell, though, it's an honest cop just looking around to make sure nothing's going on that shouldn't be. He's suspicious but there's no way for the clerk to shoo him away without making him even more suspicious about everything. The cop finds a TV set with a shattered picture tube in one of the rooms and the trap door in the bathroom floor, so now he's TOTALLY SUSPICIOUS. But right at that moment one of the killers starts trying to shove the tool cabinet out of the way and get up into the garage storeroom. At the same time, the cop sees one of the snuff films running on a TV in another room (I'm guessing the Honeymoon Suite because nobody came back to get David and Amy, so it's still running) and immediately puts it together about where it was filmed.

Back in the storeroom, Amy sees the cop stumble white-faced out of the hotel room with his gun drawn and realizes he can't be part of the conspiracy if he's shit-scared and ready to shoot someone. Amy and David make a break for it and the cop lets them into his car, which won't start.  He checks the engine (looks like a battery cable's been severed) and when he shuts the hood, the shot from inside the car (where Amy and David are) reveals one of the killers standing behind him. Exit the police officer--but realistically that just means that whichever department sent him out to check on that call at the creepy old hotel knows that he never checked in after that. Help will eventually be on the way, but David and Amy might be too dead to appreciate it by the time that help arrives.

The Foxes run back to their hotel room and shut the doors; the killers wind up in there from two directions. The couple runs through two other rooms and barricade themselves inside it. David wants to make a run for the office and get one of those revolvers so he can fight the killers on more even terms. He's not going to get a better chance than right now (while they're all hiding the police car) so he smashes out the bathroom window of the hotel room he and Amy are hiding in and tears off a piece of her shirt to hang from the window frame. They'll think she got out and ran for the woods; instead, she's going to be hiding in the hollow space above the ceiling. That's another legitimately brilliant move from David, and by the way, did anyone else realize that foxes are hunted for the amusement of the aristocracy in England? I bet that's why David and Amy have the last name that they do.

Time's speeding along while David promises his wife that he'll be back as soon as he can and says that he loves her, then focuses his chi and goes for the office. He doesn't make it a single step outside the door before one of the killers shanks him in the stomach. Amy sees and hears it happen, but clamps down and doesn't utter a sound because that would give her location away. David crawls for the outside as he starts to go into shock and makes his way into the field of vision of the camcorder that the desk clerk is holding. He collapses and the clerk tells the killers to go inside and find Amy so they can wrap everything up. He finds the dummy trail in the bathroom and has a bleakly funny put-upon expression when he realizes they have to go find her outside again. There's also a really well shot suspense scene of Amy trying not to make a single sound up in the ceiling space until the clerk leaves that room.

Well, the thing about Amy'situation now is that she has absolutely nothing to lose. As the day breaks she wakes up in the attic space, having passed out from exhaustion and fear at some point. David's still lying mostly outside the hotel room but when Amy goes outside one of the killers is behind her creeping up. She runs for where her car was stashed by the killers and one of them runs up the trunk and punches through the sun roof to try and kill her. She smashes the car into a second killer (and through the front wall of the hotel), killing the guy on the roof and mortally injuring the one on the ground. The one who isn't dead yet loses his mask and reveals that yes, he was indeed the mechanic from the first act. Hope it hurts till you die, you horrible son of a bitch.

Well, the desk clerk heard all the ruckus and comes running after Amy with his revolver stuck in his waistband. The car is no longer usable as a weapon so Amy's got to think fast and come up with something. She winds up in the editing bay and blocks the trap door with a metal shelf full of hundreds of videotapes (which means the hotel's been acting as a pitcher plant for motorists for a very, very, very long time). She picks up a mallet from a side table and goes towards the office door, then tries to get the second revolver from the decorative plaque. She's on tiptoe reaching for it when the clerk garrotes her with a telephone cord. He gets outraged when she wounds him and starts trying to beat her to death with his bare hands. He runs back for his camcorder so he can tape her death, not realizing that his stance puts his groin in a position for maximum boot access. Then he makes one final mistake when he throws Amy into another room, on top of the revolver she dropped there. Exit the desk clerk, who also (like the snuff film victims) screams in pain after the bullets hit him. Everyone in the film feels pain when they're hurt; the villains aren't supernatural slashers. Just sociopaths who make money killing people and selling the tapes. He also doesn't get back up after being shot three times because he's not a superpowered menace.

Amy runs back to her husband to find that he's still barely alive, then comes up with one more clever idea under pressure--she grabs the phone cord the clerk used to strangle her from his body and plugs his desk phone back in to call the police. As the new day continues she and David wait for help to arrive. Roll credits, but I think they're both going to be okay after all this. It'd be a narrative cheat if they both died at this point.

Man, I literally picked this one because I didn't want to do a vampire movie so I had the lowest expectations imagineable (I have never been particularly impressed with Kate Beckinsale's work). But her and Luke Wilson provide a pair of believably resourceful victims who find themselves in a horrible situation and work their way out of it. I could have done with less carping and bickering between the two during the beginning of the film but this was barely feature length as it is, so I guess it'll all have to stay. The film was lean, brutal, moved like a roller coaster once things started and I didn't think there was a single unforgivable narrative cheat to stack the deck in favor of the protagonists. They did fine for themselves but they earned every victory by staying relatively calm and thinking their way out of the situations rather than being action heroes. I always root for vulnerable heroes more than people protected by plot armor and screenplay invincibility.

And that more than anything is the reason I keep doing HubrisWeen every year. I wasn't ever going to check this out on my own and now I've seen a very pleasant surprise of a movie. When you're 80 percent of the way through the Boston Marathon of B movie reviewing events you need every scrap of encouragement you can get.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen roundtable, where five B movie bloggers go through 26 movies in 26 days in alphabetical order. Click on that bright green and black banner to see what the other movies are for today's letter.


  1. I entered into this one with low expectations as well and was very pleasantly surprised.

    I rolled my eyes when they vowed a new start, though. I don't think the relationship is going to suddenly get better unless you guys plan to spend the rest of your lives in abject terror.

  2. Same here, honestly. But the DVD was cheap and it started with V. I appreciate the craft that went into making the movie--which is hugely important to get right. If you don't set things up well enough the audience won't care what happens. And yes, it's a plot that is so old it predates the Bible, but there's a reason those old setups still get used. The idea of murderous hospitality speaks to the very core of what it means to be a human being--after all, we're social animals. Someone using that very nature to prey on other people is properly terrifying.

  3. "Murderous hospitality." Procrustes is a great reference. Also, the Red Wedding.

  4. Oh, yeah--everyone in Westeros was appalled not at the killings, but that they were done in a societally agreed upon safe spot and in contradiction of the most sacred rules. The reason the nobles had hospitality rules is the same reason world leaders don't have each other assassinated as a matter of policy--once you agree everyone's a target at any time, you hang a bulls-eye around your own neck.