Some film reviewers seem to have the idea that their job involves simply telling you the film’s story. They’ll walk you through the first act, the second act and often well into the third act, stopping just short of ruining the ending for you. But really, haven’t they already spoiled the beginning and the middle? And is knowing that much of the plot necessary in deciding whether or not to see the film?

This critic says no, non, nyet, chigau! When I think of movies that have really blown me away, nine times out of 10 I walked in knowing nothing about them. Just imagine watching “Psycho” and knowing that Janet Leigh isn’t going to live past the first reel! Or “The Truman Show” if you knew that wasn’t the “real world” from the get-go.

So what to say about “Vacancy” (Japan title: “Motel”), the astounding new thriller by director Nimrod Antal? I could tell you it’s the first time I’ve been frightened in the cinema — I mean, heart-pounding, jump-out-of-my-seat frightened — in longer than I can remember. I can tell you that it does all this without ever resorting to the cheap shocks and nauseating gore of recent fright-flicks such as “Saw” or “Hostel.” But damned if I’m gonna tell you what happens in this movie.

Director Nimrod Antal
Run Time 85 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Nov. 17, 2007

The setup is simple enough: A couple (Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson) are driving down a deserted country road in the middle of nowhere, late at night. They are bickering, but a bad night is about to get worse; after their car breaks down, they decide to stop at an old motel that sure doesn’t look like it’s had a visitor in a long while. (And no, it’s not the Bates Motel.) They settle in for the evening as best they can, but then stuff starts happening. First it’s somebody just knocking on their door. Then pounding. But nobody’s there.

“Vacancy” is an absolute perfect execution of the fight-for-survival thriller. You’ll find elements of “Deliverance,” “Straw Dogs,” “Psycho” and the original “Halloween” in here, and “Vacancy” is as tense and scary as any of them.

Take the intro: Antal is simultaneously winding us up — a sudden swerve off the road, a person popping up out of the night — while also winding us down, throwing those false frights at us and making us let down our guard, reassured that everything is “normal.” It most definitely is not, and once Antal lets it rip, the panic comes on so fast and furious that you’ll be left wondering if your heart can take another 60 minutes of it.

There is very little in “Vacancy” that hasn’t been done before, but every element here is so spot-on. You just have to step into that motel room where Beckinsale and Wilson are staying, and the mold-green wallpaper, the brown water from the tap and the roaches scurrying under the carpet will already be giving you a bad feeling. When the panic starts, the sequences are edited superbly, cutting between several angles to get the maximum squirm factor out of what may be waiting behind a door, or just off-screen. When this is done right, we take it for granted, but I guarantee you, watch “Vacancy” back-to-back with a more run-of-the-mill thriller — say “Disturbia,” or “Number 23,” both opening later this month — and you’ll see quite clearly that fright is a particular skill.

What really works about “Vacancy” is that it’s just some average couple trapped in that room, not superheroes like Bruce Willis or Matt Damon, and it’s easy to imagine yourself in that same situation, desperately trying to figure out some way to survive. True, Beckinsale has a background as an action hero (“Underworld”), but she makes you forget it here. Along with Wilson, the two seem perfectly unprepared to deal with what comes down.

Like “Deliverance,” “Vacancy” is very much about urban-dwellers’ fear of the country, of the unknown, of being alone, out of cell-phone coverage, beyond the reach of civilization. As it turns out, the irony is that the evil folk in the hills have their own hi-tech, a number of hidden cameras to record their victims’ torment as sick entertainment for Internet broadcast. (“Happy-slapping” gone snuff.) Perhaps this is Antal’s comment on modern-day horror movies: The bad guys here are the type of people who would enjoy watching “Hostel.”

The weeks’ other films:
Ten Ten: A funny old road to perdition
Four Minutes: Striking the keys to freedom from a dark world

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