(Crackle Streaming, February 2016) As far as horror thrillers taking place in murderously dangerous backwater settings go, Vacancy is perhaps more noteworthy for what it doesn’t do. Considering that the plot has to do with an estranged couple being stuck in an isolated motel used to film snuff movies, you would expect the film to be very explicit in its gory violence. But while some sequences in Vacancy are indeed disturbing, it remains reasonably light-footed in its depiction of gore. Thankfully, the result is to bring the focus back on the lead couple’s growing dread rather than in-your-face disgust at the sight of bloody mayhem. It makes the rest of the film’s growing tension more effective and helps distinguish Vacancy from countless other very similar films. It helps that Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale deliver performances anchored in reality: While Vacancy gets crazier by the minute thanks to director Nimród Antal, it does start with a fairly astute first few minutes that cleanly establish the protagonists before dropping them into a long nightmare. Several sequences help answer basic credibility questions about the nature of the premise (as in: why “Run, you fools!” isn’t an answer) and the thrills keep going during the appropriately short duration of the film. While Vacancy is no classic, it has survived well as a competent genre exercise. It could have been far, far worse.
(In theaters, July 2010) Given the indefensible mess that were the two Alien vs Predator movies, it doesn’t take much to reboot the Predator franchise with a mean and lean action follow-up to the first film. Anyone complaining about Predators’ thin story, unimaginative extension to the franchise or routine structure may want to step back from keyboard for a moment and acknowledge that this late follow-up isn’t too bad: It certainly doesn’t waste any time dropping us in the thick of the action, with its rapid assembly of human warriors being hunted by aliens on an equally-alien planet. SF fans will be disappointed by the lack of substance of the film’s SF elements (It takes a surprisingly long time for the characters to look up and notice that they’re not on Earth anymore, even after passing through a rocky plain), so it’s better to focus on Predators as an action film with a few fancy trappings. But even there, the film struggles to distinguish itself: a few sequences are badly staged and rely on unbelievable spatial coincidences. (For a film that takes place on an entire alien planet, everything seems to happen within two or three city blocks.) It’s marginally more successful at establishing each characters and giving them even a modicum of respectability: We know they’re going to be picked-off one by one, but at least we can enjoy their presence while they last. Adrian Brody credibly growls his way to a buff action hero, but supporting players such as Danny Trejo and Louis Ozawa Changchien (in a nearly-silent role) also get a few good moments. Nimród Antal’s direction is slightly more ambitious than the usual stock action film, and that’s how the film allows itself a few better moments such as a swordfight seen from overhead. Predators does last a bit too long, muddles into a mid-film lull and can’t really escape the shadow of the first Predator film, but at least it’s clearly in line with the first film, and that’s something that none of the sequels have been able to claim so far. Not a bad result for something that falls into a generic action film slot.