To fully appreciate the merits of Vacancy, you need to have the proper technology. Digitally projected lurid images and THX-amplified creaks and moans are all well and good, but what director Nimród Antal's creepy cockroach of a thriller really cries out for are the shabby delights that can only be found at a hometown drive-in theater. Even without that added dingy urgency, though, this mildly retro film feels less horrifying than it does competent and nostalgic.
Screenwriter Mark L. Smith introduces us to David (Luke Wilson) and Amy Fox (Kate Beckinsale), a miserable, bickering couple who are driving back to L.A. after visiting the in-laws and anxiously awaiting the divorce papers they'll sign once they get home. But then David takes a detour, they get lost in the middle of woodsy nowhere, and their car conks out. (You will not be surprised to learn that their cell phones don't get any reception, either.)
Desperate for a night's sleep, they find themselves at the Pinewood, an overly production-designed Hollywood facsimile of the prototypical "rundown" motel. (Everything is immaculately grungy.) After meeting local-color night manager Mason (Frank Whaley, working his huge mustache and huger glasses for appropriate slimeball effect), the loveless birds retire to their grimy abode, only to discover that they've unknowingly volunteered to be the latest stars of the snuff films Mason and his henchmen make in that exact room.
Though he made his name with the 2005 Hungarian thriller Kontroll, Antal lived in Los Angeles until the age of 17, so while Vacancy is technically his American debut, it bears no signs of the awkward learning curve that often tarnishes a foreign director's first self-conscious effort at studio schlock. Antal gives David and Amy's deteriorating relationship some cursory backstory in the early scenes we're supposed to understand that their snotty behavior toward one another is due to the death of their young son but he shares the audience's impatience to get to the scary stuff posthaste. Once the couple realizes Mason's intentions, Vacancy adheres to the no-frills demands of B-movie horror, and Antal gets his chills and shrieks from old-fashioned suffocating dread as opposed to copious amounts of bloodletting.
The absence of gore isn't the film's only triumph over contemporary horror conventions. With no zombies, Asian ghost children, or clattering symbols of post-9/11 uncertainty, Vacancy feels remarkably pure, almost naïve, in its thrill-seeking. As a rebuke to so many horror films, where the terrorizing element springs from some sociological or personal demon, the motel's mask-wearing, knife-wielding psychopaths are blessedly free of subtext, which makes David and Amy's predicament all the more arbitrary and therefore traumatizing. There's a barebones simplicity throughout, not just in Antal's dearth of over-orchestrated set pieces, but in the weapons the characters use against one another: old pistols, jagged glass from a mirror, a payphone. Just as the Pinewood feels like an artifact from another age, so too does Vacancy's brand of everyday horror represent a bygone, perhaps more innocent, filmgoing era when the most unsettling scares were rooted in our childhood fears. (Indeed, one sequence involving the Foxes crawling for their lives through dimly-lit, claustrophobic, underground tunnels both triggers any number of nightmares while at the same time recalls the giddy joy of Halloween mazes.)
Since the entire notion of an out-of-the-way, guest-slaying motel falls apart as soon as you think about it, Antal's main job is to suspend thought by delivering consistent jolts which he does with growing frequency and impressive unpleasantness as the film hurtles along to a nicely understated finale. Running less than 90 minutes, Antal's bid for Hollywood acceptance may not be bravura but it sure shows integrity. Too often, outsider filmmakers on their first studio gig try to "improve" their pulpy material with artistry. But Antal knows the kind of film he's making isn't art and so do his actors. (Once the artificial talk talk talk of the first act concludes, Wilson and Beckinsale superbly execute everything that's required of their characters namely, yelling and running without a wink to the camera.) At a time when so many ostensibly down-and-dirty genre exercises go splat because of large budgets or big egos, the small-scale pleasures of Vacancy are a welcome surprise. Happily, the movie is exactly what you think it's going to be, only better.