At the Pinewood Motel, the rundown roadside inn where most of Vacancy takes place, roaches don't have much of a problem: It's the guests themselves who check in, but don't check out. This unapologetically nasty exercise in nerve-rattling terror -- which is built around a premise so simple, you wouldn't think you could wring a full-length movie out of it -- succeeds where so many other recent horror pictures have failed: It consistently scares you silly.
In his Hollywood debut, director Nimrod Antal (whose first film, the Hungarian subway thriller Kontroll, displayed a strong sense of style but a shaky grasp of storytelling) takes the road traveled by many other talented filmmakers before him: He elevates a tawdry, if clever, script (this one by Mark L. Smith) into shaggy, ramshackle art.
The setup is campfire-story simple: Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale are a bickering, soon-to-be-divorced couple whose car conks out in the middle of nowhere, forcing them to spend the night at a motel run by a twitchy, officious creep (an excellent Frank Whaley). Moments after settling into their less-than-plush accommodations, there are startling bangs on the door and crank phone calls.
A few minutes later, the couple realizes their room has been the set for a series of snuff films -- movies that depict actual murders -- and they're slated to be the stars of the next installment.
From that point forward, Vacancy concerns itself with only one thing: turning the archetypal screws. Although there are inevitable moments of implausibility, the script maintains a surprising degree of logic, at least as far as the characters' actions are concerned (I only counted one instance of someone doing something that could be described as stupid). And while Antal is careful to keep the film's B-movie energy chugging and give the audience what it came for, he is also sly enough to sneak in subtle homages and cinematic shout-outs for those who want them (the requisite Psycho reference, for example, comes not inside a bathroom, but in the small figurines decorating the motel lobby that almost slip by unnoticed).
Vacancy maintains a sense of excruciating tension and horror for so long, it's a huge disappointment when the movie loses its nerve in its final minutes. It's as if Antal, having gotten away with so much for so long, finally caved in to the studio's demands and said ''OK, OK, I'll play nice.'' If Vacancy had been a low-budget independent feature starring a bunch of no-names, the movie would have probably ended differently.
Then again, Vacancy would not have worked as well without Wilson and Beckinsale, whose presence here strengthens the film's without-a-net, anything-goes tension (there's something innately disturbing about seeing romantic-comedy sweetheart Beckinsale running around shrieking while covered in blood; it's just wrong).
And a cheaper budget might not have afforded the services of cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction), whose careful lensing and precise widescreen compositions remind you of the space around the protagonists -- and their vulnerability to whomever or whatever may be lurking just outside the frame.
A lot of people -- especially, I suspect, critics -- are going to be repelled by the sheer depravity of Vacancy (there is, for example, a videotape depicting a series of horribly realistic murders, easily the most disturbing of its kind since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, that could make the film easy to dismiss as a work of exploitative sadism). But look past its bloody surface and you'll see that Antal is toying with the audience via simple dread and mood -- the possibility of what could happen -- rather than parading a procession of gory effects before the camera, a la Hostel or Saw. When a terrified, defeated Wilson looks straight into the camera and says ''I think they're enjoying themselves,'' he's not just referring to the unseen director of the fictional snuff film: He might as well be talking about the audience in the theater.
Lean, mean and without a single frame of self-conscious, aren't-we-cool humor in its 81 minutes, Vacancy is exactly the movie the bloated Grindhouse should have been: an exploitation picture that brings the reprehensible and the lowbrow fringe into the mainstream, without worrying about propriety or good taste. You can imagine Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez sitting in the theater, watching the movie with wide-eyed awe and thinking, ``So that's how it's done.''