WES CRAVEN, the man who gave us Freddy Kruger, a villain with a face like chewed-up bubble gum and a set of Ginsu knives for a hand, has a new villain to haunt your nightmares, but this one has the sapphire-blue eyes and baby-soft stubble of a boy-band singer. As Jackson Rippner, the impossibly pretty, sweet-talking bad guy of "Red Eye," Craven's taut, airplane-set thriller, Cillian Murphy goes from charming to creepy in about three seconds -- just as soon as the plane he's on has left the runway, and the woman sitting next to him has nowhere to run.
Up until then he's been simply dreamy, dazzling his seat-mate, Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), with his gallantry and shy, boyish smile, which he's been flashing ever since the two first bumped into each other -- far from coincidentally, as it happens -- while standing in the ticket line. Before long, Lisa's going to wish she'd been assigned the seat next to the crying baby or the guy with the pad Thai noodles hanging out of his mouth. Anyone but Jackson Rippner, whose name (if it's his real one) isn't the only thing that evokes the famous serial killer.
In short order, Jackson, who describes himself innocuously as a "manager," has made it clear to Lisa that he needs something from her and that he will go to great lengths to get it. Pick up the phone, he tells Lisa, who runs the front desk of a five-star hotel in Miami, and tell your underling, Cynthia (Jayma Mays), to transfer the room assignment of a particular VIP guest (Jack Scalia). Do it now, Jackson coos, and I'll call off the hit man who's sitting outside your daddy's house cleaning his silencer.
The thing is, the reason for the room change isn't because the toilet's backed up, as Lisa tells Cynthia, but so that several of Jackson's associates can get a better shot at the man, who just so happens to be deputy secretary of Homeland Security, with their surface-to-air missile.
Talk about turbulence.
A simple setup, and one made all the more intense by the fact that the main characters are stuck inside a metal can several thousand feet in the air, with not much room to maneuver, except psychologically. That, and the fact that Lisa, unlike most movie damsels in distress, is one smart, tough and resourceful cookie, make "Red Eye" a gripping, suspenseful journey over what is, essentially, a well-traveled route. Working from a script from first-time feature screenwriter Carl Ellsworth (whose previous writing credits include such you-go-girl TV fare as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Xena: Warrior Princess"), Craven is in top form here, masterfully orchestrating the cat-and-mouse mind games played by Lisa and Jackson.
In fact, "Red Eye" is at its best when it has nowhere to go except inside the characters' heads. The film's final reel, set in Miami after the plane has landed and Lisa must scramble to fix what she has fouled up, actually suffers -- if only in a small way -- from the loss of cabin pressure. If the film's coda feels more familiar to fans of Craven's oeuvre, it's because by opening up the action to car-chase-and-boogeyman-in-the-bathroom territory, he's traveling down an even more well-trodden road.
But that's a small quibble about a movie that, like its heroine, is lithe, limber and quick-thinking. Like a triple latte from the airport Starbucks, "Red Eye" will keep you awake, jittery and perched on the edge of your seat for pretty much the entire flight.
RED EYE (PG-13, 85 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and violence. Area theaters.