DRESSED TO KILL -- AMC Academy, AMC Skyline, Bradlick, Dupont Circle, K-B Baronet West, K-B Studio, Landover Mall, Manassas Mall Cinema, Old Town, Vienna and White Flint.

Driving rainstorms. Slowly turning doorknobs. Helpless ladies taking showers. All basic horror moviecliches, but in the hands of Brian De Palma, cliches that work.

De Palma, who's distinguished himself over the years with high-class, intelligently made thrillers ("Carrie," "Obsession," "The Fury"), can add another notch to his director's chair. "Dressed to Kill" is a witty blend of suspense and humor, a skillful manipulation of basic nightmare ingredients that leaves one limp, amused and always impressed. It's an achievement particularly noteworthy in contrast to the Grade-Z "horror" movies that have been cluttering up the screens lately.

Angie Dickinson, casting aside her sexy Pepper Anderson persona, shows off her wrinkles as the proverbial Mad Housewife. She has a loutish husband, an adoring teen-age son and a very active fantasy life, which De Palma spends a lot of time exploring, at times to the detriment of the film. While it may be insightful or amusing -- as when she ponders a museum painting, picks up pen and paper with a thoughtful expression and proceeds to write down her grocery list -- it makes for a sluggish exposition.

But after the murder scene, which could do for elevators what "Psycho" did for showers, things move along splendidly.

Nancy Allen, De Palma's wife and veteran of "Carrie," is well-cast as Liz Blake, a cheerful, businesslike New York call girl who strolls away from an evening's work to confront the murderer. She's a sensible businesswoman who puts her stockbroker on hold while arranging "dates" on the other line ("Can you put together a coffee break and a hot lunch for me tomorrow?" she asks her boss). It's refreshing, too, to have a common-sense heroine who goes to the police when a normal person would, instead of doing something flashy and stupid. When Allen teams up with Keith Gordon, funny and believable as Dickinson's precocious son, to trap the killer, it's not because the cops haven't been invited.

Michael Caine, as Dickinson's psychiatrist, is used here to much better advantage than in his recent spate of disaster flicks. He's warm and caring and anything but flip; the killer is a tortured soul "suffering from emotional dysfunction and maladaption," he informs the investigating cop indignantly. "Oh, a weirdo," nods the cop. The movie is full of sardonic asides on life in the Big Apple: jaded taxi drivers playing voyeur through rear-view mirrors, or subway riders who stare resolutely ahead while fellow passengers get mugged.

This is the sort of movie you want to recommend to friends who shy away from thrillers: Even the easily offended can appreciate the wit. In fact, by the time the final twist ending role around, it's a safe bet that even squeamish types will forget they don't like horror movies.