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. 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 age 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, but he shares the audience's impatience to get to the scary stuff. 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 blood.
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 naive -- 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 traumatizing. Just as the Pinewood feels like an artifact from another age, so too does Vacancy's brand of everyday horror represent a bygone filmgoing era, when the most unsettling scares were rooted in our childhood fears.
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. 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. The movie is exactly what you think it's going to be, only better.