DARKNESS FALLS An old fashioned campfire creepout.

Darkness Falls

dir. Liebesman

Opens Fri Jan 24

Various Theaters

Giant sharks, dream demons, evil clowns--no one ever went broke by exploiting childhood fears and fingering Freudian pressure points. From the very first frame, Darkness Falls cannily aims for the mythic-fear double-whammy of the dark and dentistry: a kindly crone known as the Tooth Fairy gets unjustly barbecued and comes back a century later as a shrieking, light-phobic Kabuki demon bent on kidflesh. Unsuspecting townsfolk fall like wheat. As far as horror premises go, this is a fairly arresting one, delivered with a modicum of self-aware intelligence and an impressive command of offscreen space. No needless character development or erroneous sub-plots exist to dilute the potential shudders: it just wants to get ya.

The filmmakers appear to have studied the less-is-more success of The Ring (and the mortally overlooked Mothman Prophecies), wisely concentrating on generating mood and unease rather than huge gouts of plasma. (Whoever came up with the sound effects for the airborne bogeywoman's slurping, unclean midnight feedings deserves showers of accolades, and possibly thorazine.) One unfortunate spring-loaded cat aside, what emerges is admirably stripped down, built for speed, and blessedly free from much of the pop-culture riffs and cheap shocks so detrimental to the genre's shelf life. Amid a cast of no-name cannon fodder, Buffy vet Emma Caulfield manages to breathe a bit of nervous life into the standard scream queen tintype. Worthy of special mention is cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who does an ace recreation of under-the-bed blackness.

Darkness Falls may lack the relentless, resonating shiver quality that marks an indelible horror classic, but it provides for more than acceptable campfire fare (although at under 80 minutes, it lasts less than most Duralogs), with occasional moments of genuine visceral fright. You may forget about it as soon as the theater lights come up, but it ain't stingy with the heebie-jeebies.