An obscure new horror thriller (or two or three) seems to creep out of the woodwork almost every weekend. Last weekend, it was "The Children."

In this minimally exploitable, eminently expendable obscurity, five or six kids are transformed into zombie killers after their school bus drives through a mysterious amber fog, somehow caused by a leak from a pipe at a nuclear power plant.

Instantly, inexplicably changed into ghouls, the kids proceed to terrorize parents and other unwary grown-ups by hugging them to a ghastly death. When blackened little fingernails grasp unsuspecting human flesh, it is broiled to a charry pulp in a matter of seconds.

The premise is not exactly foolproof. Moreover, the quality of illusion leaves so much to be explained or desired that "The Children" inspired far more mirth than excitement among the adolescent handful attending at the same time I was. Outside the theater, kids stalked one another with robot walks, Cheshire-cat grins and extended arms, threatening facetious extermination.

Producer-screenwriter Carlton J. Albright, presumably the founder of the unknown production company, Albright Films Inc., and the father of the two Albright juveniles listed in the closing credits, has conspicuously failed to drive the public wild by adding a pinch of Three Mile Island to plot gimmicks derived from "Rosemary's Baby" and "Night of the Living Dead" and music derived, with even more embarrassing dependency, from "Psycho."

Albright may have overestimated the sort of apprehension adults tend to feel when approached affectionately by kids who've been playing with their food or making mudpies. Those scalding bear hugs always seem extravagantly silly. The movie -- evidently shot on a shoestring somewhere in the Berkshires -- is a better source of unintentional slapstick than sheer terror Unforgettable highlights. A distraught mother brains the sheriff with a flower vase when he begins taking potshots at the approaching kiddies; a father, scorched by his own weirded-out-flesh-and-blood, staggers into the kitchen clutching a mutilated hand and addresses the missus, "Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah . . . Kathy, gimme some icewater, quick!"

Despite the picturesque grisly inserts of burnt victims and hacked-up assassins (the nominal heroes, the aforementioned lawman and daddy, blunder upon the discovery that the zombies will perish only when their outstetched hands are sliced off), the movie isn't as graphically appalling as it might be. Several murderous embraces occur offscreen to sizzling noises and pitiful cries of "Aaarrrggghhhh!"

I'm not sure what, if anything.Albright had in mind by characterizing a couple of victims as bitches and the remainder as numbskulls. It's impossible to tell whether the expendability of the victims was meant to be sneakily amusing especially to kids, or merely reflects the inability of the filmmakers to invent adequate characters.

Making things easy for himself in a sickening way, Albright ultimately visits repeated victimization on a family of four the very night that the mother of the house is due to bear her third child. Nevertheless, the ugly economy of this situation is softened by the amateurish writing and playing, invariably so klunky that even the most vicious imtimations tend to be reduced to desperate nonsense.

Given the ongoing popularity and profitability of motley horror thrillers like "Halloween," "Phantasm," "When a Stranger Calls" and "Friday the 13th," who can blame aspiring filmmakers for trying to break through with a scary sleeper? Horror remains the cheapest, safest means of entry into an expensive, frustrating show-biz racket.

Expendable as it is, "The Children" may serve as a useful audition film for director Max Kalmanowitz and cinematographer Barry Abrams, who leave a few hints that they might do interesting work if entrusted with an intriguing script and a professional cast. Every so often an inventive, eerie shot betrays the presence of a fitfully effective visual imagination somewhere behind the camera.

Malevolent children used to crop up in the occasional "Bad Seed" or "Village of the Damned." The insidious success of "Rosemary's Baby" and then "The Exorcist" and "The Omen" has turned diabolical kiddies into an obscenely overindulged gimmick. "The Children" is a feeble reminder of an exploitation trend seen at its most ruthless in a picture like "It's Alive!" Everything considered, it's difficult to resent "The Children" for being too inept to become equally hateful.