Back before the home video market imploded, we used to constantly see old, relatively obscure B-movies re-released with brand new covers hyping up the presence of a now-famous actor who, just like everyone else, clearly had to start somewhere. Sometimes they were indeed the star of the old movie, like Jim Carrey in Once Bitten. Often times, though, they were barely in it. Either way, somebody’s marketing department suddenly had a way to finally put their damn movie in the black.
So, you could almost be fooled into thinking history was repeating itself with The Vault, an indie heist-horror mashup which recently made its way to Netflix. They slapped James Franco’s face on the cover and gave him top billing, yet he’s but a barely engaged observer in what is actually Taryn Manning, Francesca Eastwood and Scott Haze’s movie.
The former two rather convincingly play bickering sisters forced to rob a bank to bail their brother, Haze, out of a financial hole and deadly debt to some bad people. When, by the halfway point of the movie, the more trigger-happy members of their team cause the robbery to go south, Franco emerges as a peace-seeking assistant manager who gives them access to a secret underground vault housing millions in exchange for a promise to not harm any more of the hostages. What they find in the vault, though, might just spell their doom, and the question of whether Franco knew what he was sending them into hangs over the rest of the story.
But this isn’t some old movie just finding the light of day because of a suddenly hot name in the cast (Franco is about to get an Oscar nomination for Disaster Artist, after all). No, this is just the kind of thing Franco does. He teaches literature courses at any college that’ll take him. He stars in big franchise horror movies like Alien: Covenant but only if his character dies in his very first minute, quick enough that most people don’t even know it’s him on screen. He makes a Lifetime movie just to see what that’s like and then does another one because the first one was so much fun. And he lends his name to an ultra indie like The Vault to help them get funding and then mostly sleepwalks his way through the movie.
It certainly fits Franco’s m.o. of valuing as many different kinds of work experiences as possible regardless of quality or mainstream appeal. In this case, though, I can see why he was drawn to this particular script from writer-director Dan Bush (The Signal). What he and co-writer Conal Byrne have come up with here is actually a pretty good idea for a movie: what if some desperate people suffered the misfortune of trying to rob a haunted bank? Moreover, the twist ending revolving around the true identity of Franco’s character is fairly clever.
It’s just that after a decent opening which plays to standard bank robbery tropes and rides on the back of Manning and Eastwood’s forceful performances The Vault never fully pulls off the switch to horror. The idea that the members of the team in the underground vault start seeing ghosts which don’t actually register on the security cam footage being watched by Manning and Eastwood is initially promising and quite effective.
However, the further the film turns toward horror the more the tension built up in the first half of the story gives way to confusingly shot and terribly acted sequences. It rings as a disappointment because while the film’s first half doesn’t exactly promise transcendent entertainment it does at least make a strong case that you’re in for some capably made, B-movie pulp. Instead, you’ll end up feeling as disconnected from the carnage as Franco’s largely emotionless bank manager.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You could do worse in the eternal search for something to watch on Netflix, but you could do a lot better. There’s at least a pretty good idea for a horror movie here, and Taryn Manning and Francesca Eastwood deserve to star in a movie that doesn’t need to have James Franco in it to get our attention.
CRITICAL CONSENSUS RIGHT NOW
What about you? Have you seen The Vault? Let me know in the comments.