28 April 2009

VACANCY AND MAINTENANCE: ONE PRETTY GOOD AND ONE PRETTY AWFUL PYSCHO FLICK

The story here is a Psycho type thriller that really was not as bad as the reviews made me think it was going to be. There are a few references to Psycho, for example in the assorted stuffed birds that decorate the office, the quirky manager played very well by the dependable Frank Whaley and the invasive voyeurism that takes place in the honeymoon suite. The voyeurism though lacks the psycho-sexual peeping Tom aspect that characterized Norman Bates though, and here it instead is done in the form of video taping snuff films and supplying them in quantity to the booming snuff film trade I guess (though I belong to the school of thought that puts snuff films into the category of urban-myth… but what a suitable myth to base a slasher style movie on).

The film is not a gratuitous gore film and the edgy drama is built up perfectly before the actual mayhem breaks loose. While there are no real surprises for the most part it is a watchable film. The story centers on an unhappy couple played by Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson who have some serious problems in their marriage that are about to break them apart when suddenly in the middle of their ongoing tirade of insults to one another their car fan breaks after Wilson swerves to miss a raccoon on a dark and sparsely populated stretch of highway in the middle of backwater USA. They trek back to a gas station and hotel and reluctantly stay the night to wait for the garage to open. Frank Whaley plays the genuinely unnerving hotel manager who from the very beginning makes you uncomfortable. The simple scene where he is counting out dimes is sheer personality disorder incarnate. He is a Norman Bates type psycho in that he does not belong to the class of modern film "super" pyscho slashers and he dispalys uncertainty and anxiety later in the film as he loses control of the situation little by little. His unimposing physique seem to make his character more believable and common and therefore more frightening. I am so happy there was no "sexy master mind" killer here. God, that is such a bore anymore.

After Beckinsale and Wilson get in to their room and continue their litany of complaints and criticism the tension begins in the form of banging doors and phone calls. It is done very well and soon they find copies of video tapes showing the former occupants of the very same room being murdered and taped. The film develops into a cat and mouse game soon as our couple go on the offensive but the predators are well seasoned and have all the upper hands. Beckinsale is a commanding presence of a woman (Underworld and Van Helsing) and this movie would be much different had Mia Farrow been in the lead role, but she is vulnerable and shaken up and out of control here and does some good acting. Wilson is fine in the role of the more sentimental of the wayward couple who wants to salvage some of the relationship and confront some losses (the death of a child?) that Beckinsale wants only to forget. He is not a strong man really but soon takes control and shows Beckinsale he has some testosterone after all, until he is knifed in the gut in front of her. In movies it always works out that as you show the woman what a real man you are you immediately get knifed or shot saving her and she can suddenly realize that she had over looked all these qualities in you and feel a little guilty. I wish real life were so simple.

The ending is no surprise as Beckinsale kicks all the bad guy's asses in no time flat. The movie is predictable in the way a good movie like this will be (the only alternative ending is what, where the bad guys win and kill all the good people and you are left feeling depressed and nihilistic... I guess you could have an ending where the good guys and bad guys all decide to change and team up and become friends, but that would really suck too). But it is how the formula unfolds that makes the difference I suppose, the way two roller coaster rides can be different and yet you expect the same ending from both. The film is well made and well acted and not over the top in the violence department which can be a relief really. There is blood and violent death, do not worry about that okay. But it is controlled effectively by director Nimrod Antal who does not use the film as an excuse to simply show intestines and livers dangling from people, which brings us to our second film, the dismal and forgettable, exploitation mess Maintenance.

This movie has the feel of the type of films made by the Film Threat Video company. Really low quality, almost with a shot on video look, and usually with an emphasis on gore and graphic violence and no concern towards the acting or technical aspects. I will admit that there were a couple scenes in the beginning where the dialog and basic acting looked promising, but all those hopes disappeared quickly. The story is so simple as to defy belief. Of course the story line in Vacancy is simple too and it has been done in one form or another a million times. The problem with a movie like Maintenance is that it takes a simple form and makes no effort to do anything with it other than exploit it for gore purposes. If you think about it the concept for Rocky is simple and unoriginal, but Stallone made a great script out of it. Okay, not every movie will be Rocky, I know. I did not buy this DVD thinking it would be an Oscar winner (as if that were an indicator of a good movie anymore).

This is the so-called plot. After a short introduction that tries to give the film social credibility (why, it is only a movie trying to make us more aware of the dangers around us and the shortcomings of the American justice system) showsing some percentages about the release of dangerous prisoners back into society and their reoffense rate the movie goes right into the story. A guy played by Mark Masten, recently released on parole, gets a job in a high rise apartment complex with only four female tenets living in it at the time because of ongoing renovations and then immediately begins killing them off one by one. Well, that’s about it.

The murders are brutal and are followed up by dismemberment scenes. He stores his “trophies” in his refrigerator and a clueless detective never seems to consider searching his apartment since he is a violent ex-con and he began work the same day the disappearances begin. Why make a connection there? It ends on a fatalistic note with the heroine being killed by the landlord himself. I hate these kinds of endings as they are not a twist in any way. They are a cop out and an attempt to make the film have some sort of impact on the viewer that the film maker could not achieve in some more subtle or sophisticated fashion. Another thing that drove me up the wall was the camera work. It seems like 80% of the film is shot from a really low angle, like the camera is mounted on a hand dolly and is pushed around everywhere. Even in scenes where two people are simply having a conversation the camera is aimed up from knee level and it gets old real fast. Furthermore, the film is all washed out in some green tone or something. I do not know if this is on purpose or what. The look of the scenes I have posted here is exactly how the movie looks!


It is hard to get into the suspense because the acting is bad and the story is implausible and the camera work is inane. Like I said before, these two films are like two different roller coaster rides. They do the same thing, but take the one with some vacancy because this one needs a lot of maintenance. This one is a toxic waste feature.

Vacancy gets:
Maintenance gets:


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