"The religion of the South," wrote Flannery O'Connor, "is a do-it-your-self religion, something which I, as a Catholic, find painful and touching and grimly comic. It's full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically."

Throughout her brief but illustrious literary career. O'Connor attempted to isolate and diagnose the rogue religious fevers cultivated in her native South. Hazel Motes, the fanatic young protagonist of her first novel, "Wise Blood," carried the feverish tendency to tragic extremes.

Brad Dourif embodies this stiffnecked, forbidding yokel heretic with remarkable wit and fidelity in John Huston's fascinating, uncompromised film version of "Wise Blood," finally opening today at the Outer Circle after many postponements.

Returning to Tennessee from the Army in the late '40s, Motes embarks on a career as an evangelist. His avowed aim is to reject the cult of Jesus that has haunted him since a childhood dominated by an evangelist grandfather. Yet he can't free himself of this overpowering spiritual influence, no matter how much he struggles and protests, and his doctrine exposes nothing so much as his morbid preoccupation with the myths he purports to demystify and update.

Motes confronts his fleeting sidewalk congregations with zero consolation and no hope of salvation. He preaches "the Church Without Christ," in which "the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way. Ask me about that church I'll tell you it's the church that the blood of Jesus don't foul with redemption . . . . I'm going to preach there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no judgement because there wasn't the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar.

While not exactly an uplifting literary classic, O'Connor's uniquely compelling account of spiritual hubris in Taulkingham, Tenn., has finally been transposed to the screen with a rare dedication and integrity.

Published in 1952, "Wise Blood" kicked around Hollywood long enough to get a reputation as an unadaptable novel. It might have sustained that legend if concessions to the box office had remained imperative. Undertaken a generation ago under major-studio auspices, a movie version of "Wise Blood" would probably have been as remote from O'Connor as "The Long, Hot Summer" and "The Sound and the Fury" were from Willliam Faulkner.

But "Wise Blood" eventually made its way to filmmaking amateurs with a special regard for the work. Producer Michael Fitzgerald and screen writer Benedict Fitzgerald are the sons of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, the literary executors of Flannery O'Connor, who died in 1964 at the age of 39 a victim of lupus.

After securing the participation of Huston, whose career has been distinguished by an attraction to challenging literary material (Stephen Crane, Herman Melville, Carson McCullers, the Book of Genesis, et al.) and by stories dealing with ill-fated fortune of salvation hunters, the young fitzgeralds were able to consummate a labor of love. "Wise Blood" was shot as faithfully as possible on the modest but adequate budget of about $2 million, with a cast chosen exclusively for suitability and skill.

Huston's straightforward, sardonic direction reinforces a compact, unusually literate screenplay. What may be missing in this deft distillation is a comparable emotional involvement in Motes' self-destructive religious passion. cO'Connors' own religious perspective tends to impose severe judgments. But the filmmakers regard Motes and his small-town southern culture from the point of view of interested, observant outsiders. Houston even manages to stylize the Macon, Ga., locations, doubling for the Tennessee town of the novel, in a curious way that recalls the original late-'40s setting while placing the story in the present. This is a movie that seems eerily suspended in time without resorting to a literal time machine.

"In his short, catastrophic career as a debunking evangelist, Motes doesn't make much headway with his provocative theology. Far from rejecting the cult of Jesus, Motes acts out a forlorn, vanity-ridden parody of messianic teaching and self-imposed suffering. He tries to compete with the Christ he professes to reject, and he fails miserably.

Motes attracts one ardent disciple, a lonely, simpleminded boy named Emery (Daniel Shor), who equates supreme happiness with masquerading as a gorilla. Motes also attracts an avid female admirer: Sabbath Lily Hawks (Amy Wright in a sensational performance), the complacently slutty teenage daughter of an evangelical charlatan, Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), who begs on the streets and pretends to be blind. Interpreting Motes' fanaticism as a sign of the same lust she revels in, Sabbath Lily flatters herself that she's got him hooked and her future secured.In fact, Motes is far more interested in her father's disreputable charade.

Motes finds his unorthodox ministry compromised before it's scarcely begun. While delivering his harangue outside a movie theater, he is suddenly preempted by an amiable conman, Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty), who presumes that Motes is a fellow huckster who just may have come up with a dynamite gimmick in that Church Without Christ brainstorm.

Shoates proposes to manage the "act" and smooth down the rawboned, abrasive young prophet's rough edges. "If you want to get anywhere in religion," he sagely remarks, "you got to keep it sweet. You got good ideas, but what you need is an artist-type to work with you." Deeply offended, Motes rebukes him and departs in a rage. "Where you goin'?" Shoates yells in sincere astonishment. "There must be at least 10 dollars out there!" y

Determined not to let a promising gimmick go to waste, Shoates precipitates the gruesome climactic events by hiring a patsy named Solace Layfield (William Hickey) to dress like Motes and plagiarize his sermon. The consequences prove brutal for both imposter and original.

Brad Dourif's flair for high-strung, obsessive roles, impressively evident in his performance as the timorous Billy Bibbit in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and the scroungy hippie chauffeur in "The Eyes of Laura Mars," is reaffirmed with steely brilliance in "Wise Blood." It's impossible to imagine an actor being more in character, a closer physical or temperamental double. Dourif stalking the screen like a famished, angry coyote, is poor self-deluded Hazel Motes come to lean, flinty, pathetic life. c

I wasn't convinced Shor was inventive or amusing enough to sustain Emory's longish speeches or the subplot devoted to Emory's infatuation with a movie beast called Konga. The other leading players seemed impossible to fault, although one doesn't envy Mary Nell Santacroce's assignment as Motes' solicitous landlady, a role that begins to count only after the plot is already heading bleakly for its bleak denouement.

Dourif and Stanton refine talents for the neurotic and cynical, respectively, that were already formidable. The exciting revelation is Amy Wright. She's been distinctive in small roles in "not a Pretty Picture," "Girlfriends" and "Breaking Away," but Sabbath Lily is her first major opportunity, and she pounces on it with the glee of a kitten tossed a catnip mouse.

Wright projected hints of malicious carnal mischief in her brief appearance as the insinuating hitchhiker in "Girlfriends." Sabbath Lily allows those hints to blossom into full, corruptly fragrant flower. This disarmingly funny, sexy little hick has more alarming oomph and cunning than all the Little Darlings and Foxes of contemporary nymphet-happy Hollywood put together.