Apr 25, 2007 at 12:00 am

Exterior, night: A woodsy two-lane highway. A sleepy husband and wife cruise through the wilderness. The husband swerves to avoid a raccoon; the car stalls. They argue. "Why didn't you just stay on the interstate?" the wife asks. Their cell phones have no signal. In the distance, they see the neon lights of a lonely motel.

You don't have to be a script-reader for a studio to have heard this setup before; by now, you can probably generate it yourself using a function key in Microsoft Word. The concept of Vacancy is pretty much the same as any wrong-turn horror flick that's been made since Psycho. In the last couple of years alone we've been subjected to about 20 of them, many of them remakes, each more pointless than the last. But as tempting as it is to lump Vacancy in with its "peers" — House of Wax, The Hitcher, the torture porn of Hostel — it's a significant notch above them. It's a grim, nasty little movie, expertly crafted to twist your gut into a knot and keep it there for 80 minutes.

It helps that screenwriter Mark L. Smith has at least one killer idea up his sleeve. Not only do the unhappily stranded David (Luke Wilson) and Amy (Kate Beckinsale) find themselves checked into a motel where you don't check out; they're also being filmed by a perverse snuff-film auteur (Frank Whaley, looking like a refugee from a '70s John Waters film) who relishes every squirm. "This has to be some kind of a joke!" Amy cries after seeing the cameras, failing to mention the more plausible possibility that they are the unwitting stars of a new reality show on MTV.

In fact, the irony of our "reality" obsessed culture isn't entirely lost on director Nimrod Antal, making his Hollywood debut after the acclaimed Budapest-subway thriller Kontroll. It might be giving Vacancy too much credit to say it's a scathing critique of our current obsession with real-life horror, be it Fear Factor or cell-phone-filmed atrocities. But as David and Amy scramble to find a way out of their seedy suite, Antal doesn't miss the opportunity to implicate the audience as voyeurs on the same level as Whaley's drooling motel owner, who spies all their desperate actions on his bank of ancient TV monitors.

The details of Vacancy's plot all but crumble upon reflection; the whys and hows aren't well-thought-out. But Beckinsale and Wilson underplay their bickering-couple routine admirably, and Antal was savvy enough to choose Quentin Tarantino's former cinematographer, Andrzej Sekula, to shoot the film. Long after the specifics of this otherwise by-the-book thriller have faded from memory, you'll remember the grimy, saturated reds and browns of the motel, and the way the masked killers emerge from behind the shiny polyester curtains to butcher their prey. Awesomely kitschy '50s decor never looked so horrifying.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].