Vacancy (2007) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

The WTF Happened to This Horror Movie series looks at the 2007 film Vacancy, starring Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale

The episode of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? covering The Silence of the Lambs was Written by Mike Holtz, Narrated by Travis Hopson, Edited by Juan Jimenez, Produced by Andrew Hatfield and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

There are many rules in the genre of horror. Never build anything on top of an ancient Indian burial ground. Don’t say “I’ll be right back”. Because you won’t. Don’t decide the best time to transfer Michael Myers to a new location is on Halloween night. That one’s simple common sense but here we are. Another should be that finding any physical media when in a horror movie is a very bad thing. From the VHS tape in The Ring to Ethan Hawke’s box of family fun in Sinister, all the way down to the Necronomicon. In today’s horror movie, the rule remains true as a snarky and unhappy couple finds blank tapes in their seedy hotel room after breaking down in the middle of nowhere (another thing you should attempt to avoid in a horror movie) and pop them in to discover they are full of not porn but rather folks being murdered and tortured. At first glance, they’ve just found some unmarked Faces of Death video tapes from the nineties. But a deeper look reveals that these are legitimate Nicolas Cage 8MM-style snuff films, the murders are taking place in the very room they are sitting in, and they are supposed to be the stars of the next tape….this is WTF Happened to VACANCY.

When The Revenant and Overlord writer Mark L. Smith was taking a vacation from the Dude Ranch he ran with his wife in Colorado, driving through New Mexico he noticed many hotels in the middle of nowhere with little to no customers. He wondered to himself how these places stayed in business. This thought, no doubt coupled with real-life news stories of hotel inhabitants finding cameras in their rooms, was the breeding ground for the creation of this 2007 thriller. In the film, a motel manager and several of his colleagues (if you can call them that? I don’t know what you’re supposed to call the dudes you make wear masks and film doing murder? Hitmen seems too professional for these perverts) have strategically placed cameras in the vents of the room as well as underground tunnels that provide entry to each room via a secret trap door under a bath mat in the bathroom. The two masked men then toy with and eventually murder the occupants in various ways and then the hotel owner sells the footage to truck drivers and other sick and twisted members of society.

Years after Vacancy (watch it HERE) would release, a 2016 story would bear a striking resemblance to the content matter of the film, about events that took place before the movie. In the story, a previous hotel owner reached out to write Gay Talese about his upcoming book titled Thy Neighbor’s Wife about sexuality in America, offering to contribute to his book. The man wrote and admitted that he and his wife ran a hotel for decades that featured crawl spaces and aluminum screens in the ceilings so that they could watch their customers and satisfy their “voyeuristic tendencies”. He would even watch his customers as he worked the front desk, placing a buzzer at the front that would notify him if someone showed up to rent a room. At one point the man claimed to even be indirectly involved in the murder of a drug dealer’s girlfriend when he flushed his drugs down the toilet, only to watch the girl be blamed for the missing drugs and strangled to death as the hotel owner watched, only reporting the incident to the police when a maid found her body. The man eventually retired, thank Christ, and the hotel has since been demolished. So even though it hadn’t been public knowledge at the time, Vacancy is sort of based on a true story, even if it didn’t know that at the time. Freaky.

Hal Lieberman of Screen Gems would go on to produce Mark Smith’s script and for a while, it was rumored that Sarah Jessica Parker would star in the film before it was announced that Kate Beckinsale of the Underworld franchise would play one-half of the unhappy couple, Amy Fox. The other half, David Fox, would be played by Luke Wilson, fresh off roles in movies like Old School and The Wendell Baker Story which, if you believe the tabloids at the time, carried over to his real life. According to The New York Post, rumblings from the set were that Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson couldn’t stand each other. Allegedly, Luke Wilson would show up hungover, late, and unprepared frequently and brag to others on set about his sexual conquests the night before. There was also an alleged issue when it came to off-camera line reading (where one actor or actress not in the scene will stand off camera and deliver lines to the other to help the realism of their scenes) as Wilson would refuse to do so for Beckinsale. Finally, she stopped showing up as well, and as legend has it sent down a photo of herself instead, inscribed with the words “Read your lines to this. It will be better for both of us.”

Vacancy (2007) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

For what it is worth, if true, their off-screen turmoil translated well to the screen as the cathartic heart of the movie revolved around this couple’s hatred of one another before the events of the film brought them closer together. After the loss of their young son causes them to drift apart as they cope with the loss in conflicting ways, the two are traveling home from a family party both literally and figuratively. On the road…and toward their divorce. When David decides to take a shortcut off the interstate (he clearly should have watched more horror movies) their car begins to make a funny noise. He stops at a defunct-looking garage when they are both jump-scared by the mechanic about to head home for the day. Not to fear! He’s the most trustworthy-looking guy around because he’s played by Can’t Hardly Wait and Empire Records’ lovable Ethan Embry. As the writer Mark Smith said, “Embry has the ability to be charming and disarming”. In this moment he’s sight for sore eyes for both the couple and the audience. Little do they know, he’s one of the two “colleagues” I mentioned earlier and also has employment at the motel next door. Feigning niceness, he secretly sabotages their vehicle which will break down again just two miles up the road. He even gave them a sparkler! Which probably should have been a sign. That’s just weird.

Luke Wilson delivers his “Dad being an insufferable prick” voice to pure perfection when he looks over at Amy, smiling for the first time as she enjoys the sparkler, and says “I guess I ought to buy you a box of those sparklers”.

There are plenty of moments like this between the two, whether he’s judging her for suppressing her feelings with her medication or she’s not allowing him to remember his late son fondly without attacking him. At times, they are the perfect representation of a couple being dicks to each other after a fight. But the blatant sharpness of their attacks at one another is so realistic, that you start agreeing with them that it’s probably time for these two get a divorce. This believable hatred would eventually translate to a believable arc for the characters as they remember what they mean to each other when faced with a life-or-death situation. Though the movie doesn’t say for sure, we’re left to believe when it’s all said and done *Spoiler Alert!* the two survive and live happily ever after. As writer Mark Smith said, “Probably if you caught back up with the Fox’s in 10 years there would be another child in real life.”

This f*cked (bleeped) up story of love, heartbreak, snuff, and voyeurism could have easily been your typical mid-2000s unrated gorefest but director Nimrod Antal had something else in mind. The director of Predators wanted a film that was light on the gore and heavy on the Hitchcockian suspense, saying “What I liked about the film originally was the opportunity to do something elegant that was different from the norm. It didn’t concentrate on the violence and gore so much it was more of a suspense film, more of a build.” This Hitchcock tone was set at the very start of the film with a cool ass opening title sequence and score by Halt and Catch Fire Composer Paul Haslinger.

Vacancy (2007) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Another main character of the film was the setting of the Pinewood Motel itself. Antal had just directed the Hungarian film Control which was entered as the country’s selection for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards and takes place in the claustrophobia of the Budapest Subway system. With Vacancy, he would once again use his location to create a sense of escalating tension and panic. Two separate sets would be constructed from scratch, with one being the interior, and the other the exterior. The attention to detail was so specific that Antal mentioned that although the set was clean, he would feel the need to wash the motel off of himself after a days work.

The man at the center of the location’s perverted black heart is none other than Pulp Fiction’s Frank Whaley who was cast as the motel manager. Whaley was praised constantly by his fellow cast and crew for his performance and brought a strange but impressive Ted Raimi-esque vibe to the film. He played the character as an off-centered individual with the inability to hide his strangeness even when attempting to be polite but was also able to escalate the character into a spastic nutjob when letting his freak flag fly. He’s definitely not a guy you want to see lurking behind the dumpster at your local KFC after midnight. Yeah, that’s oddly specific. But I mean, you don’t.

Speaking of Pulp Fiction, cinematographer Andrzej Sekula worked on the film as well and together with the director was able to create a tense atmosphere for the audience throughout. Sekula would use a series of composed dolly shots for the first half of the film to make the audience feel comfortable before moving to more handheld shots to jar them as things started to escalate. Several of these moments involved intricate action scenes involving car stunts. In one scene, a vehicle takes out a phone booth with Luke Wilson’s character diving out of the way in the nick of time. In another, Kate Beckinsale forces a car through the hotel, pinning one of the masked murderers to the wall. These scenes were all shot practically without the use of CGI, opting instead for a group of ballsy stuntmen and intricate setups to pull them off….and the difference, as usual, is quite noticeable. As Antal said himself, “Those stuntmen really put their necks out and so I got something much better than anticipated.”

Not everything was so complicated, however. One of the most frightening sights Vacancy offers is the snuff tapes. Multiple tapes of multiple groups of people were filmed being tortured, stabbed, and even hung after being terrorized around the room for a few moments. To shoot these sequences they would simply go over their marks with the actors to get a general idea of where they would end up before rolling cameras and just letting things play out. The result was, according to Stunt Coordinator Luke Gilbert, “they were just so sloppy and real looking that I paid off in the end to do it that way”. And I’d have to say I agree. There’s something oddly realistic about watching the tapes presented in the film that makes you feel gross inside. To be honest, the biggest plot hole of the film is that they expected us to believe those carpets were unstained. The snuff films in their entirety are available as extra scenes on the home video release special features. That was a weird sentence to say. They shot the snuff films on the very first day on set, which no doubt set the tone for the rest of the shoot. The film as a whole left a lasting mark on its crew as well. Beckinsale said that on her next film, they were required to stay at a hotel on location and some of her co-workers who had also worked on Vacancy were all “really freaked out” to be in a motel after that.

All the effort that went into Vacancy feels worth it if you ask this guy. While not a perfect film, it’s an amazingly horrific premise that makes for a good rewatch every few years. It works as both an original idea and a solid addition to the home invasion genre, with quite a few similarities to The Strangers which would come out a year later in 2008. What starts as an esoteric premise leads into a far wider-spanning idea that asks plenty of interesting questions. Were each of those tapes in the room different murders? THERE WERE SHITLOADS OF THEM! How long have they been getting away with this? The trucker that shows up at one point purchases an entire box of VHS tapes himself. Were those all for personal use? How far does this ring of terror spread? There are many questions, each one seemingly leading to a more fascinating story.

Vacancy (2007) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Did critics feel the same way upon the film’s release in 2007? Not quite. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Ebert and Roeper gave the horror film a bad review, saying it was, an “uninspired, unoriginal, and chills-free thriller”. Hard disagree here. But Empire Magazine’s review at the time was a lot more thoughtful, praising the director and saying the film was, “a lean and slightly unusual genre pic that had Psycho’s fingerprints all over it.” Before acknowledging that it starts strongly but “the build-up is better than the main event.” Which is an interesting point because dynamically the film does tend to suffer a bit. The realization of the horrific predicament our couple is stuck in together is understandably hard to top for the rest of the film. This, mixed with over-exhausted horror tropes at the time is ultimately what may have led Vacancy to its mixed critical and audience responses.

The film’s marketing included a toll-free telephone number that you could call and have Frank Whaley’s voice answer as the front desk attendant of the Pinewood Motel. You could hear the screaming from the tapes in the background while he informed you of all the “killer” deals the motel had. Finally, Vacancy would open in April of 2007, just one week after fellow horror thriller Disturbia, and on the same date as Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling’s thriller, Fracture. The film opened at #4 and raked in $7.6 million in its opening weekend before pulling in $35 million worldwide on a budget of $19 million. This was enough to spawn a direct-to-video sequel just a year later titled Vacancy 2: The First Cut.

Ultimately though, the true legacy of Vacancy will be that it’s a movie that will have you searching your hotel or Airbnb incessantly for cameras. Which, to me, is the kind of thing that makes a horror movie great. It’s somewhat realistic, has a good group of lead actors to take you on the journey, asks a lot of questions, and has you looking under the (motel) bed at the end of the night. Even if yeah, I also wonder why David just sat there not moving with a knife wound in his stomach for what seemed like for-f*cking-ever. I just assumed he was tired of doing everything for Amy who….if I’m being honest? Was kind of useless the entire film until she thought he was a goner. STOP ASKING QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT I’M DOING WHEN I’M IN THE MIDDLE OF BEING CHASED BY A GUY WITH A KNIFE, K? Either way, I’m glad Vacancy exists in film form, creeped out forever that it existed once in real life form, and happy as Hell that you took the time to watch this video today. And that is just WTF Happened to Vacancy.

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.