I was already worried about having Psycho flashbacks just from the premise of Vacancy, in which two people are terrorized by the weird proprietor of a tiny hotel miles off the main highway in what appears to be California, so when the main titles started up, looking very reminiscent of the work of the late Saul Bass, I was prepared to give up and go home. Then it hit me: looking very reminiscent of the work of the late Saul Bass is an objectively good thing, because the late Saul Bass was an unimpeachable genius.

Writing about title design is like dancing about architecture. The short version is that the "camera" darts in and out through the words of each card, rotating and panning, kind of like the entire credits sequence was laid out on the world's largest multiplane camera. The long version is go see the damn movie.

And the reason you should go see the damn movie not just because the credits are fantastic, but because Vacancy is, all things considered, not half bad. Indeed, it's much less than half bad. To be completely honest, Vacancy is something that I've been seeking for years now: an American horror film that genuinely scared me, front to back, top to bottom, and after I was out of the theater.

This surprised me, although it should not have, and here is why: the director, Nimród Antal, is a frakking genius who made one of my favorite movies 2003, Kontroll. That film was a trippy exploration of the Budapest underground rail system, freely mixing action with romance with a murder mystery with techno-driven rave scenes. For this, he won the Cannes Prix de la jeunesse, a special award given by a panel of 18-25 year olds.

The point being, Kontroll was many things, and one of those things was a fantabulous slasher movie, and now I'm embarrassed that I wasn't willing to trust Antal a little bit more. Vacancy isn't a slasher movie (it's torture porn), nor is it exactly fantabulous (okay, I'm done with that word now), but the director still has that unmistakable knack for pacing, and for framing images in excitingly original ways, and using both of those skills to crank the tension up nice and high.

On balance, Vacancy isn't really about "horror" nearly so much as it is about "suspense": our plucky pair of heroes, David and Amy Fox (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) figure out very quickly that they've been trapped by a conspiracy of psychopaths with a yen for making snuff films, and so the film is more about "when" than "what" or "how." It does not try to surprise us and thereby scare us, but rather it gives us all the pieces and then lets us sweat. That's a reasonably simple distinction (Hitchcock articulated it most eloquently. Of course), but one that's completely lost on the great majority of American directors, who have it in their minds that all thrillers are horror films, and therefore they all rely on garish musical stings, jump scares and gore.

Antal, bless his heart, doesn't fall into that trap. There is no gore to be found in Vacancy, and while the script sets up many opportunities for "boo!" type scares, he doesn't really take advantage of them. Instead, he uses a simple assortment of techniques to keep our POV yoked to David and Amy's, and he plays up the suffocating closeness of the spaces both interior and exterior, bringing a terrifying claustrophobia to the goings-on (I couldn't list every instance in which one or both of the protagonists are "caged," by Antal's frame, or an element of framing within the mise en scène, but car mirrors, doorways, phone booths, and decorative fencing are all used at some point to increase that claustrophobia). In effect, he turns the characters into trapped animals, aware that they're being watched and aware that there's no way to escape. It's worse than scary, it's stifling; and that is terrifying, to me at least.

Thank God for Nimród Antal, because all that is completely due to his influence. Without him, I suspect that Vacancy would be just another torture porno, albeit one with a surprisingly small amount of gore. Mark L. Smith's script - his first - is fairly hollow and predictable, although it does one thing that is very rare and very welcome: it makes the main characters grown-ups with grown-up problems. Before they are sucked into the hotel's web of death, David and Amy are struggling to deal with their impending divorce. Unsurprisingly (because this is a movie), they patch things up in the course of fleeing the killers. Now, this is hardly The Descent, in which grown-ups with grown-up problems also get grown-up psychology, but at least they're a step above the generic teenagers that customarily populate the genre.

I will admit that the casting choices help to bring interesting things to the characters. Not the actors - Beckinsale is just bad, now and always, and Wilson doesn't seem to care about anything but his paycheck - but the baggage those actors carry. Luke Wilson, after all, is famous for his laid-back regular guy roles, and that Everyguy quality makes David not necessarily more sympathetic, but certainly more recognizable. And Amy's turn from ice queen to wilting flower to ass-kicker would have been a lot harder to believe if it hadn't been someone like Beckinsale (who seems to be all of those things in real life) playing her.

The real stand-out in the cast is character actor Frank Whaley, playing his role as an apparent variation on one of the most famous hotel managers in cinema history, by which I of course mean Dennis Weaver in Touch of Evil.* His villain is a creepy twerp from the get-go, and it's to his absolute credit as an actor that he never loses that twerpishness even as his violent psychosis comes to the fore. One can almost imagine that earlier in life, he was the sort of geek who was in the AV club, and that makes his character's filmmaking proclivities all the more warped.

Vacancy is not a masterpiece. It is just a successful scary movie, which makes it better than 95% of its genre bedfellows. I've been waiting for a film like this for a long, long time, and for bringing it to me, Nimród Antal has immediately jumped to the very top of my list of directors to keep an eye on.