If you’re a fan of psycho killer thrillers, this should be right up your street. It’s classic, almost clichéd slasher movie material. Young couple getting lost in a remote part of the countryside? Check. Car breaks down? Check. They find a remote motel in which to spend the night? Check. It all turns out to be a bit creepy and they end up having to run for their lives? Check.
The motel being an obvious nod to Hitchcock’s immortal Psycho, from the clichéd set-up car break-down onwards it’s clear that the filmmakers really love this genre, and are fully aware that the film owes a massive debt to countless earlier flicks – most notably John Carpenter’s cult classic Assault on Precinct 13. Shot with a grimy, sepia-tinted stylishness by Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, Vacancy is not only more self-aware, but also simply looks a lot classier and grown-up than the majority of modern horror thrillers.
In this age of Scary Movie parodies and Saw-style over-the-top explicitness, getting a straight slasher flick that doesn’t merely consist of a group of nubile, scantily-clad teens getting hacked to pieces is a rare treat. The fact that the male lead is taken by Luke Wilson, better known for being a comedy actor, is a cunning, knowing piece of casting in this age of parodies and mickey-taking, putting audiences nicely off-guard. Likewise, chucking in Kate Beckinsale as the female lead is a fairly cunning move, as these days she’s becoming best known for donning black PVC catsuits and blowing the hell out of things with guns in the likes of the Underworld series and Van Helsing, rather than as the typical horror movie damsel in distress. It all makes for a certain amount of uncertainty about just how the film’s going to unfold – will Wilson start cracking jokes? Will Beckinsale start turning the tables on their attackers with a series of slow-motion martial arts moves?
Thankfully, however, rather than try to be too clever, director Nimród Antal has opted to stay faithful to the classic thrillers that have provided the inspiration for the film, and play it fairly straight. From the foreboding sense that something’s not quite right to the discovery of gruesome videotapes of previous motel occupants being slaughtered, the tried-and-tested formula still works just fine, despite its repeated, often decidedly predictable subversion in innumerable films of the last ten years. As the chase begins, and Wilson and Beckinsale find themselves besieged and on the run in the grotty back end of beyond, the joy of those older psycho thrillers comes back in waves.
A couple of years ago some bright spark in Hollywood decided it would be a good idea to remake Assault on Precinct 13, whacking together a decent enough cast of the likes of Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne and Gabriel Byrne to recreate the 70s tale of a police station under siege by a vicious, faceless gang. But it had none of the tension or engagement of the original, nor any of the menace and believability. Instead it is to Vacancy that one must look to see a more faithful remake of the John Carpenter classic – changing the characters and location, perhaps, but faithful to the spirit and atmosphere almost to perfection. Original? No. But good fun if you like this sort of thing, with plenty of decent scares to boot.