Vacancy is a schlock surprise: a no-frills motel-hell slasher film — with a bit of soul. It’s proof that when characters are under attack by anonymous masked goons, it really is better if the victims aren’t just walking slabs of starlet meat. Luke Wilson, with his hangdog defensive mopiness, and Kate Beckinsale, all sexy severity, are ideally matched as a couple who hate each other. They’re David and Amy Fox, soon to be divorced, who find themselves stranded on an anonymous highway in the middle of the night, picking away at each other’s emotional scabs. Their tit-for-tat squabbling is itchy and funny, especially compared with the usual teen-horror-film jabber.
When these two wander into the Pinewood Motel, a roadside relic that looks as if it hasn’t been housecleaned since the late 1970s, it’s obvious that Vacancy is going to be an homage to the granddaddy of all psycho thrillers. It also looks like a comic nightmare set in the Twilight Zone. The motel’s manager (Frank Whaley) is a geek in a sardine mustache and aviator frames who emerges from an office, where he’s watching what sounds like torture porn. He’s a gloss on Norman Bates, but Whaley, all passive-aggressive frowns, plays this odd-duck creep with what might be called understated overstatement. The whole movie is like that: It’s grind-house trash done with style. (It’s also a tidy 80 minutes.)
When David and Amy get inside their motel room, it’s a squalid dump, but the rotting decor, which looks like early Brady Bunch house meets Saw, is so colorfully grubby there’s suspense lurking in every diseased nook and cranny. Before long, the two are being terrorized by ferocious knocks on the door, and when David discovers a pile of dusty videotapes, the torture and murder porn on them looks all too real. The creepy part is, the tapes were shot in that same motel room. Vacancy’s director, Nimrod Antal, made the technically impressive but turgid 2004 Hungarian subway drama Kontroll, but this time he gives every scene a spin of finesse. David and Amy have to crawl through a rat-infested tunnel and use a car as a weapon, but though the action is sometimes over-the-top, the staging never is. That’s why Vacancy is truly scary. It’s also undeniably a formula flick: Once you figure out where the movie is going, it never once veers off its sadistic, don’t-peek-behind-the-shower-curtain course. But this is one fear ride that almost gets you to care.