'Why didn't you just stay on the interstate?" says tired, miserable Amy Fox (Kate Beckinsale) to her husband, David (Luke Wilson), when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.

Why, indeed?

Because then there'd be no excuse for Vacancy director Nimrod Antal to trot the lost couple over to the Pinewood Motel - a rundown hostelry that makes the Bates look like a five-star retreat.

What's especially creepy about this place, besides the tap water (reddish brown) and cockroaches (well-fed), are the videos available to guests at no extra charge. At first glance, they appear to be nasty slasher films. At second glance, they appear to be nasty slasher films taking place in the very same room where Amy and David are staying.

If there's any doubt about what's happening, check out Vacancy's cast credits. Nine of the 16 roles in this slick, sick-o exercise share the same description: snuff victim.

Antal, film-schooled in Hungary, lets the tension between Amy and David, and Amy, David and a mousy desk clerk (Frank Whaley), build slowly. But once the Foxes are tucked behind door No. 4, the brain-rattling phone calls (no one's on the other end) and mysterious thumping begins. It's not long before the stalkers/killers/cinema-vérité artistes are trying to break in, and Amy and David are desperately trying to break out.

Mark L. Smith's screenplay merrily deploys the usual scare-fare requirements: a suspiciously friendly stranger, the absence of cell-phone signals, a cop who fails to call for back-up.

Beckinsale and Wilson, playing a husband and wife whose marriage has fallen apart in the wake of their young son's death, are convincingly hostile to one another when they're still safely in their car.

But once they're holed up in old Pinewood, they have to put aside the blame and doubt, pool their resources and their resolve, or die. Vacancy, in the end, simply offers a particularly aggressive brand of couples counseling.

Vacancy ** (out of four stars)

Written by Mark L. Smith, directed by Nimrod Antal. With Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson and Frank Whaley. Distributed by Screen Gems/Sony.

Running time: 1 hour, 20 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.