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MOVIE REVIEW

'Vacancy' leaves room for terror

Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale play a bickering married couple who make a horrific discovery at a rural motel. (Suzanne Tenner)

The ads are making "Vacancy " look like the latest meat-grinding horror special to come down the chute in the wake of "Saw " and "The Hills Have Eyes ." It's not. It's an entrance exam. And a pretty good one at that.

Director Nimrod Antal made a stylish Hungarian film in 2003 called "Kontroll ," about brutal power games among the ganglike employees of the Budapest subway system. Riding on that festival hit, the L A -raised director has returned home to see what Hollywood might offer and come up with a stripped-down suspense drama that, at its best, begs comparisons to Steven Spielberg's breakthrough TV movie "Duel ." At its worst, "Vacancy" is merely the kind of taut B-chiller they don't make any more, other than to riff on them in "Grindhouse. "

The set-up is as simple and stark as an urban legend. A bickering married couple, David (Luke Wilson ) and Amy (Kate Beckinsale ) have car trouble on a country highway miles from the interstate. They hike back to a motel run by a weird little night manager (Frank Whaley ) and take the honeymoon suite. They put on a videotape, which shows a horrific scene of murder so realistic it could be a snuff film.

In fact, it is a snuff film. And it was filmed in the room they're standing in.

The rest is pure cat-and-mouse, but as scripted by Mark L. Smith and directed without an ounce of fat by Antal, it's nastily intelligent cat-and-mouse that rarely cheats the audience. "Vacancy" squeezes the maximum in suspense out of the minimum in location (with a relative minimum of gore; how's that for a trick?). It runs through every permutation of the motel-hell concept, and when it's done, it stops. Really: It just stops. I don't know when I've seen a thriller this unpretentiously well-crafted sputter to so inconsequential an end.

Still, the filmmakers sketch in enough of David and Amy's backstory for us to want them to survive. (Again, such novelty.) The two have a dead child that has driven them to the brink of divorce; according to this movie, nothing says "couple's therapy" like a backwoods maniac coming at you with a digital camera and a butcher knife.

Wilson and Beckinsale aren't given much time to indulge in acting, thankfully, so their performances are harried and real. Whaley creates a memorable cracker-barrel lunatic behind those oversize aviators; I'd swear he was modeling his role on Dennis Weaver's jittery night clerk in the Orson Welles classic "Touch of Evil ."

Maybe that's not a coincidence. Unlike the new wave of torture porn, "Vacancy" feels like it was made by people who love movies and perhaps have seen a lot of them. Those snuff flicks on the motel TV offer an implicit critique, too: What kind of person gets off on that? Someone for whom "Saw III" just isn't enough? The movie unnervingly hints there's a vast audience out there, and one that's willing to pay retail.

I don't want to oversell the thing. There's no agenda in "Vacancy" other than to keep you in a state of nervous collapse for 85 minutes, but Antal fulfills it honorably for the most part (that ending truly is a disappointment) and in so doing raises the stakes for his own future. Now let's see what he can really do.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

'Related'

Vacancy

Directed by: Nimrod Antal

Written by: Mark L. Smith

Starring: Luke Wilson , Kate Beckinsale , Frank Whaley , Ethan Embry

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Embassy Cinema, suburbs

Running time: 85 minutes

Rated: R (brutal violence and terror, brief nudity and language)

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