There's no small amount of irony in a movie that unmistakably references Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, yet lacks any interest in human psychology. The ruthlessly streamlined thriller Vacancy has a perfectly twisted villain in Frank Whaley, the bespectacled proprietor of a roadside motel who preys on his guests. He's like Anthony Perkins with updated technology, a voyeur who tucks hidden cameras into every corner of the "honeymoon suite" and patches together amateur snuff films with his masked associates. Only in Vacancy, there's no "mother" or even the faintest impression that a decent gentleman exists somewhere beneath his squirrelly exterior. Whaley's just a creep who's into torturing and killing people, which is the biggest missed opportunity in a movie that's considerably better made and acted than most of its torture-porn contemporaries.
The standard-issue setup finds bickering married couple Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale taking a late-night detour through a remote mountain road, a "shortcut" off the interstate. When a near-accident damages the exhaust fan on their BMW, Wilson and Beckinsale stall out near the seedy Pinewood Motel and decide to sleep away the rest of the night before getting help in the morning. Shortly after Whaley escorts them to their suite, they experience the first signs of trouble when they're assaulted by pounding noises from the room next door. They then discover a cache of videotapes containing footage of other guests being tortured and murdered inside their room.
Making an assured transition to Hollywood after his Hungarian cult sensation Kontroll, director Nimród Antal gets his business done with an efficiency that recalls Red Eye, another thriller that clocks in under 90 minutes. But efficiency isn't everything, and Antal sacrifices too much in order to sustain tension: Imagine what Michael Haneke or Brian De Palma would have done with a premise like this one, or what might have happened had Wilson and Beckinsale's crumbling relationship led to more than just this extreme form of couples therapy. As for Whaley, his witty introduction behind the check-in desk instantly establishes him as the most interesting character, far from a garden-variety backwoods cretin. But five minutes later, he's just the biggest cat chasing the mice around, and the only detail left to savor about Vacancy is that the mice are smarter than usual.