The opening at first seems cliched, but it's also shivery and eerie. An attractive young couple, Amy and David Fox (played by Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson, with a casual intelligence movies like this often lack) are driving alone late at night on a deserted back road far from the recognizable cities or towns on David's map. David has unwisely left the interstate for a "shortcut"; Amy has been sleeping.
When she wakes up they begin bickering in the sour, exasperated manner of two people, once close, who've spent most or all of their emotional capital. They're in the throes now of a dissolving marriage after a family tragedy, on their last trip before the divorce. Soon, they'll develop engine trouble and be forced to pull into an old, decaying gas station by a seedy motel, the Pinewood -- which, like the Bates Motel in "Psycho," has all vacancies.
A friendly young mechanic (Ethan Embry) patches up the engine quickly and directs them back toward their destination, which David apparently passed. But, a mile or so beyond the station, the car breaks down completely, and they're forced to walk back. With the likable mechanic gone for the night and all other shops or stations within 20 miles closed until morning, they take a room at the Pinewood, a decrepit establishment run by a disturbingly gabby night clerk named Mason (Frank Whaley).
We can sense that terrible things may happen. The room Mason gets for them, the so-called Honeymoon Suite, is crummy and squalid, with cockroaches, fetid blankets and an ancient TV with homemade-looking tapes stacked nearby. The two, depressed by the accommodations and alienated further from each other by David's bad navigation, continue bickering. But soon this mild nightmare accelerates into something far worse.
"Vacancy" is the scariest new horror movie I've seen since the original, French-language version of "High Tension." The director, Nimrod Antal -- who made the multiple award-winning Hungarian hit "Kontroll," a gut-gripping, more literate horror tale set in the Budapest subway -- knows how to put an audience on the hook and keep them there. His model is "Psycho," of course, but unlike the makers of "Disturbia," who looted "Rear Window," he and screenwriter Mark L. Smith have figured out interesting new variations on the pop movie myth. As in "Psycho," this is a movie where you don't want to give away either the ending or the middle.
Antal was born in Los Angeles but schooled in Hungary, and on both "Kontroll" and "Vacancy," he seems a natural. Both his movies are about underworlds below the surface of the everyday, and both films detail those subsurface hells with relish and detail. Production designer Jon Gary Steele and cinematographer Andrzej Sekula ("Pulp Fiction") do terrific work.
"Vacancy" is a shocker about the normal world plummeting into pathology. But it's also a movie about a couple who've grown apart, trying to survive together through almost unimaginable horror. The casual realism and edgy psychology of Beckinsale and Wilson's byplay are a large part of what makes the movie work; Smith and Antal take plenty of time to introduce us to them. Wilson's David has a likable but soured boyish bravado; Beckinsale's Amy is snappish, whip-smart and resourceful.
"Vacancy" has scenes that strain credulity and let the tension break a little. But though some of the plot twists don't work, many of them do, and the overall premise is terrifying. You've seen movies like "Vacancy" before -- it's nothing if not derivative -- but this one is better acted, more strikingly visualized and more chillingly atmospheric. It's a sordid but expert shocker.