Hungary's Nimrod Antal, who made an international impression with his stylish Kontroll in 2003, makes a satisfying Hollywood debut with this tight, intense genre thriller that should be a tidy earner for Sony Pictures.
The pitch - a couple finds themselves imprisoned in a motel room where their captors intend to make them stars of a snuff movie - is a tasty one and the script by hot Hollywood newcomer Mark L Smith just about manages to extend the drama to a full-length feature although implausibilities towards the denouement demand certain leaps of faith in the audience.
Budgeted at a modest $20m, Vacancy is a more suspenseful and less bloated affair than other thrillers in the marketplace at the moment, namely Disturbia, Fracture and Perfect Stranger. Screen Gems has proven its skill at releasing genre pictures like Vacancy - Underworld, Resident Evil - and should score a sizeable domestic opening, ensuring a very healthy ancillary life. International audiences will also respond to the high concept and the effectively orchestrated thrills. Mid-level names Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson can only boost the film's profile.
In the same way that he created a claustrophobic netherworld out of Budapest's subway system in Kontroll, Antal elicits every ounce of tension from his one location here, namely a rundown and isolated motel in the northern Californian countryside.
The performances of Wilson and Beckinsale also serve to elevate Vacancy from the glut of routine shockers that crowd movie schedules these days. As a married couple on the brink of divorce, they are convincingly estranged and their responses to the peril that faces them at the motel are more nuanced and compelling than the screaming B-listers who traditionally people studio scarefests. Perhaps because their characters are adults and not teens, the film is at once more engaging.
Still struggling to deal with the accidental death of their son, David and Amy Fox (Wilson, Beckinsale) have decided to divorce. They are returning one night from her parents' anniversary party when their car breaks down on a remote country road. A mechanic (Embry) at a shabby garage tries to fix the engine, but a mile further on, the car stops altogether.
Barely able to speak to each other, they reluctantly check into the seedy motel attached to the garage. The night manager Mason (Whaley) is unhelpful and the room they check into is dirty and crawling with cockroaches.
Trouble begins when they hear loud banging on the walls from the next door room and their suspicions are aroused when Mason tells them that they are the only guests at the motel.
Turning on the TV to try to relax, David tries to play some unmarked videocassettes which appear to be graphic slasher films. But in a matter of minutes, he realizes that the films are all shot in that very hotel room and that the victims are real guests of the hotel. He finds cameras hidden in the room filming his every move and masked men armed with knives appear outside the windows, intimidating them and increasing their fear to enhance the sadistic effect of the production.
The estranged Foxes have to come together to elude their marauders -Mason and The Mechanic - and survive through the night.
Although the nature of the story has an edge of unpleasantness, the film is an old-fashioned battle of the wits along the lines of Duel, Joyride or Breakdown; there's even a nod or two to Hitchcock in the colourful Saul Bass-esque opening credits and Paul Haslinger's Herrman-inspired score. Expert cinematographer Andrzej Sekula does a great job of lighting the nightmarish motel, its shabby fittings, crummy decor and underground tunnels.
Antal keeps the action and suspense at such a furious pace that most of the gaping plotholes go unnoticed. Why the couple don't call a breakdown service at the start of the film is curious, but not as perplexing as why the killers fail to polish off one of the protagonists they have knifed.
The Hal Lieberman Company
Sony Pictures Releasing International
Glenn S Gainor
Stacy Kolker Cramer
Mark L Smith
Jon Gary Steele