'THE HITCHER" is a disturbing elaboration of those drawn-out -- and very scary -- tall tales told around the campfire or in the dark at a slumber party.

"My mother told me never to do this," says friendly boy-next-door Jim Halsey, after pulling over on a deserted badlands road to pick up a hitchhiker in a pre-dawn thunderstorm.

Listen to your mother, kids: Halsey gets no more than a few miles down the road, when the creepy, cryptic hitcher says, "That's what the other guy said," then casually mentions that he just cut off the arms and legs and head of the last Samaritan. "And I'm gonna do the same to you," he says. Gulp.

Understandably unnerved, Halsey manages to eject the hitcher from the car on a careening turn. But the hitcher beats him to every murky, lurky gas station and truckstop, and begins a nasty cat-and-mouse game, slaughtering a screenful of innocents and expertly framing Halsey, who soon has every cop in the Wild West on his tail.

There are no real characters to speak of in Eric Red's minimal screenplay, his first, which seems to take off from a line from a Doors song called "Riders on the Storm": There's a killer on the road/His brain is squirming like a toad . . . If you give this man a ride, sweet family will die." Red's scenario borrows freely from Steven Spielberg's man- against-truck "Duel," then turns into a more conventional coppers and choppers shoot- 'em-up, a variation on Spielberg's "Sugarland Express." Relying on action, Red just gives us types: the Boy, the Psychopath and the Truckstop Waitress who tries to help Halsey and gets taken for the ride of her life. Later, he adds (then subtracts) a small army of disposable policemen.

The hitcher -- who calls himself, appropriately enough, John Ryder -- seems to belong to the growing family line of indestructible cinematic psychos, beginning with Norman Bates and extending through Jason, Freddy and the Terminator. Ryder is played with an icy blue stare by Rutger Hauer, the resilient replicant of "Blade Runner," and Hauer is a bogeyman worthy of any nightmare.

C. Thomas Howell, who careens through the part of terrorized Halsey, begins his drive looking like Bambi, but by mid-movie he's as mangy and wild-maned as Keith Richards.

"The Hitcher" was directed by Robert Harmon, who has a fondness for there's- someone-behind-you camerawork, and knows how to lull a crowd and plant a fake scare. Together, the young team of Red and Harmon supplies horror movie fans with plenty of satisfying opportunities to scream at Halsey, "DON'T DO IT!"

It's hard to wholeheartedly recommend "The Hitcher." Sadistic and graphically, pointlessly violent, it may leave most sickened. But it is also a distressingly effective thriller, with plenty of scalp-tingling, seat- clutching squeals on wheels. And here's betting you'll check the back seat of your car after you leave.

THE HITCHER (R) -- At area theaters.