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April 18-24, 2007

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They check in but they don't check out

By Richard von Busack

THE KEY movie demographic troops off to Disturbia, plagued by know-it-alls who keep mentioning some moldy old James Stewart/Alfred Hitchcock film from the 1950s. (Rear what? Sounds like a porn movie). Vacancy will look like completely new goods to such as them. While nothing new, it's no disappointment as a commercial project. A trim and tough piece of goods, Vacancy is directed by Nimród (Kontroll) Antal. Antal is that rare thing in movie history, a Hungarian emigrant—he left L.A. at 17 to attend film school in Budapest. Now back in America, Antal wires up a thriller set in a lonely motel, lighting up Mark L. Smith's script, a mash-up of Psycho and Peeping Tom.

Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale play David and Amy, a squabbling couple lost on a highway, haunted by the ghost of their son; their sorrow explains the reason they're gouging chunks out of each other as they drive. The two pull into a gas station and get some free service from a too-friendly mechanic (Ethan Embry). All of this serves as a roundabout opener to get the couple where they belong: the honeymoon suite at the Pinewood Motel.

It's 3am, and the roachy, filthy conditions in the room don't encourage sleep. David puts one of a stack of unlabeled tapes into the VCR and discovers an authentic-looking snuff film that seems to have been made right on the spot. Guests are being done to death by thugs in silver masks that make them look like they've been faux-graniting their faces. (Maybe the masks are supposed to look like the grainy static of an untuned television set.) David discovers the motel room is lined with cameras. Mysterious pounding on the door keep them awake. And the innkeeper, Mason (Frank Whaley), offers no help. He wears unflattering spectacles, flashes wolfish incisors and seems to keep a few of Norman Bates' taxidermed birds on his desk. Escaping the death trap requires—horror movie fans will be glad to hear—careful study of the home-made snuff tapes, as well as burrowing into the ground and into the ceiling.

Antal finds in Wilson something new, flashes of serious truculence and disappointment. Wilson has the beginning of Texas jowls on him, and there's a hint that this actor could grow up into someone as capable of depth as Kurt Russell. Beckinsale's Amy is possibly a case of miscasting; one too many turns as a butt-kicking babe leaches a little of the suspense of seeing her cornered. Still, Vacancy is effective and cheat-proof right to the ending. It is clear that Antal is an entertainer, not a barbarian. At the worst moments of violence, Antal elides cleverly. One especially bad punch up takes place half-shrouded by a camera. The director evinces an all-important sense of pity—a sheriff (David Doty) who arrives on the scene is old and fat, but he's not a pigeon. As usual you can tell the quality of a film by how the more minor actors are treated. Talented as he is, however, Antal can't transcend the limits of this reheated material. This is a shock machine, not a tragedy like Psycho or a rich study of the urge to watch like Peeping Tom. The real vacancy is in this script's soul.

Movie Times Vacancy (R; 85 min.), directed by Nimród Antall, written by Mark L. Smith, photographed by Andrzej Sekula and starring Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale, plays valleywide.

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