The primal fear of shadowy menace has perhaps never been so potent -- something that works to the advantage of the new thriller ''Joy Ride.''
Although ''terror'' may not be what most audiences are craving, this story of two brothers who encounter a malevolent trucker on a cross-country journey skillfully exploits the terrifying feelings that began for most people with ''the thing under the bed.''
The man -- if he is a man -- pursuing Lewis (Paul Walker) and his older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) is never shown, never identified and never explained. The audience hears only his muffled, slurred voice on a smashed CB radio.
Known by his handle Rusty Nail, the stranger is angry at the two men for playing a childish joke on him. They had used their CB to trick him into thinking he would meet a woman at a particular motel room near theirs.
The next day, they learn that someone mutilated the burly grouch who actually occupied that room -- and Rusty Nail is after them for revenge.
Plot holes and improbabilities abound in ''Joy Ride.'' It seems doubtful, for example, that local authorities would free the two brothers with merely a scolding after the first mutilation.
We also know that no rig, no matter how powerful or solidly assembled, can crash through buildings, cornfields and other vehicles and still function.
But director John Dahl (''The Last Seduction'') mitigates these flaws by staging the film in an over-the-top nightmare that frees it from the rules of reality.
At times, the movie seems to wake and linger in more normal surroundings, such as when the two brothers -- mistakenly thinking they eluded the mysterious trucker -- pick up a friend (Leelee Sobieski) at a college on their route.
But these prove to be only rest stops on the road to more carnage.
Two of the main performances hold back the movie's energy, while the third makes up for the lag.
Walker doesn't have much screen presence, playing a vanilla hero who must keep his troublemaking brother in line while protecting his best girl. Sobieski also seems strangely vacant, with the script requiring her only to scream, cry and be in danger.
Zahn makes the relationships work, adding a mischievous fury to his character that flavors each scene and invests the other characters with importance.
The script by Clay Tarver and Jeffrey Abrams inevitably begs comparison to ''Duel,'' Steven Spielberg's 1971 made-for-TV movie in which Dennis Weaver played a businessman menaced on a lonely road by an unseen trucker.
Although its premise may not be original, ''Joy Ride'' is still tense, chilling escapism.
''Joy Ride'' is rated R for violence, terror and profanity. Running time: 97 minutes.
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