Bright Lights Film Journal

Collateral Torture

I’m still disturbed a few days after seeing the new horror film VACANCY, not because of anything that happens to the lead characters (played with low key integrity by Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson) but because of the video footage that plays within the film, namely grisly torture murder snuff films. The plot involves a bickering couple who wind up stranded at a motel in the middle of nowhere, a typical horror scenario since the days of Psycho… but with a very big difference. The peeping of a Norman Bates-style maniac has gone fully digital (well not quite, the killers still use VHS) and the motel is part of a living-breathing snuff film operation. Luke and Kate are barely adjusted to the sleazy, frozen in a decaying 1960s faux wood style of the room when they discover the torture movie they’re watching is in fact a snuff film shot right where they’re sitting (!). It’s a great hook, and the film is engrossing and engaging, yet, to my mind all the more disturbing because of the way these snuff films are so vivid and realistic, yet so incidental to the plot, nothing more than McGuffins when you get down to it.

Though a trash film lover, I’ve still yet to see Cannibal Holocaust, Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave, and I avoid the slasher genre like the plague. On the other hand, I was disturbed by Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Texas Chainsaw Massacre but find both to be wry social commentaries, where the horrific violence is front and center, an endurance test that one “passes,” in a sense, by seeing the film straight through and learning to take one’s horror response as a particpatory form of social commentary rather than an unpleasant reaction to the filmmaker’s misogyny.

But the disturbing element in Vacancy is ultimately not what’s happening to the characters onscreen but the relatively off-the cuff treatment of crimes committed against characters on the screen within the screen; that is, the video footage of past hotel guests getting stabbed, hung, and pleading, screaming for their lives. In a film like Cannibal Holocaust (so I’ve read) this approach is used to great effect by showing unspeakable carnage via faked “found footage” so that rather than show up-close gore shots (which would be a cinematic giveaway) the torture and cannibalism are seen almost accidentally through dropped cameras.

But that’s the main scare selling point of that film: a low budget quickie that needs to sell tickets the only way it can, through shock! Vacancy,on the other hand is a mainstream release, the found snuff footage is incidental to the running and ducking speeding trucks of the main stars. One need look no farther than the film’s Saul Bass-ish animated credit sequence with its use of the names in the credits to form some twisting maze… a clever design concept that has nothing to do with the grisly events of the film. To judge by the credits alone it’s a light Hichcockian thriller ala North by Northwest.

Actually, the intensely disturbing rape-murder sequence in Frenzy is probably the closest Hitchcockian kin to Vacancy‘s lurid subject, but Hitch was always aware of the audience-as-voyeur rubric and implicates the audience via killer POV shots. He also grants the character’s death suitable import by making it the film’s creepy centerpiece. We’re meant to be shaken to the core by it. The snuff films in Vacancy on the other hand, are there to scare the characters, not disturb the audience. Also, the acting in these snuff films is almost too intensely believable for its own good; one longs for some unconvincing displays of fear to leaven the horror. After all, this is a thriller with two recognizable b-list box office names, not some grindhouse quickie! For all that, even a grindhouse quickie would see the connection between the evils of a snuff film operation and the profit-minded fake torture films of modern Hollywood. Vacancy almost makes it a point of missing the connection and/or commenting on it, and maybe that’s the ultimate difference between art and exploitation.

I am hoping by entering this as a blog I will somehow exorcise the bad taste this casual approach to torture and murder for fun and profit has left me with. When the implied complicity of the horror-seeking Vacancy audience in the collateral suffering of its snuffed characters isn’t even subtextually addressed, one can’t help but assume they are watching a film made by someone completely callous towards human suffering. If the credits had been less stridently cartoonish, if it had begun and ended in the post-modern white noise style of 2002 Ring remake, let’s say, that might have helped one process all this pointless sadism as some grand guignol academic exercise (ala Henry or Chainsaw). Instead one is left with the cold realization that in Hollywood today, unless you’re a proven star, your painful torture-murder barely rates a second glance, let alone a voyeuristic sense of guilt.