Grade: C-

There’s a certain grim efficiency to J.S. Cardone’s grubby stalking-vampires-in-the-desert-southwest movie; whether that’s enough to justify a trip to your local multiplex, however, is rather doubtful. “The Forsaken” might remind you a bit of “John Carpenter’s Vampires” or a less jokey version of “From Dusk Till Dawn,” but its greatest unacknowledged debt is certainly to Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 shocker “Near Dark,” a genuinely unsettling little piece (thanks to the clever, imaginative script by Bigelow and Eric Red and to her skilled helming) that provides the obvious template for Cardone’s effort. “Near Dark” is a much superior picture–tighter, grittier, creepier and–needless to say–more original. By the standards of second-hand homage, “The Forsaken” is at least a competent copy.

The main protagonist of the flick is Sean (Kerr Smith), a shallow young film editor who’s traveling cross-country from California to Florida for his sister’s wedding. He’s driving one of those great cars that somebody rich needs transported to some distant destination–shades of C. Thomas Howell in another Eric Red script, 1987’s chilling “The Hitcher.” And, like Howell’s unlucky youth, he picks up a hitch-hiker. In this case, however, the fellow turns out to be not a mad mass murderer like Rutger Hauer, but Nick (Brendan Fehr, who plays Michael on the “Roswell” series), who proves to be a pint-sized Van Helsing trying to track down a coven of vampires. It seems he was bitten by one of the group some months back and, kept from turning into one of the undead by a special drug cocktail, hopes to cure himself of his affliction by killing the leader of the pack, the oily Kit (Johnathon Schaech). Kit, we’re eventually told, was one of a group of eight medieval knights who gained immortality by consorting with the devil and turning into blood-suckers. And these proto-vampires, as it were, can only be killed by sunlight or decapitation (shades of “Highlander”) on sacred ground. So many rules–so little time (the picture runs under 90 minutes).

Anyway, before long Sean and Nick have picked up the group’s latest victim, the shaken and mute Megan (Izabella Miko), and are being pursued through the desolate landscape by the brood, stopping occasionally to off one of the creatures, chase down Megan (who has an unfortunate tendency to run away), or set forth further exposition about the rules of vampire destruction. After innumerable near-disasters, close escapes and bloody confrontations, the trio find themselves at what looks like a deserted warehouse inhabited only by scraggly Ina Hamm, who–God bless us–turns out to be Carrie Snodgress (and, as broadly as she’s played by that once-distinguished actress, should probably bear the forename Ima). Now a quartet, they take a stand against the two remaining undead–Kit and his catty “feeder,” the svelte but nasty Cym (Phina Oruche). The outcome is predictable, but a coda rejoins Sean and Nick in a search for another proto-vampire (shades of “Salem’s Lot”)–although if there’s a sequel, you can be pretty sure it will go direct-to-video.

All of this is terribly silly and derivative, of course, but Cardone dishes it up effectively enough; as in his earlier picture “Outside Ozona” (1998), about a group of people driving around the desert while a serial killer’s on the prowl, he’s fairly adept at employing the southwestern vistas to stage dust-throwing car chases and episodes of grisly gore. And after an uncertain start, the cast proves adequate to the meager demands put upon them. Smith, like his name, is a suitably callow, nondescript hero, and Fehr’s David Duchovny-like looks serve him as well as they do on TV. Miko makes a pretty damsel-in-distress (although an early scene when she’s stripped by Nick while unconscious–he’s looking for the bite mark, you see, and it happens to be in about the last place he tries) is unnecessarily graphic. Schaech plays King Vampire with the same sort of snarly sophistication that Chris Sarandon brought to a similar role in “Fright Night” (1985), and Oruche grins and threatens impressively. Also noticeable is Simon Rex, who does a kind of Dennis Weaver impression as Pen, the coven’s goofy “day driver.” Maybe he’s watched Spielberg’s “Duel” or Welles’ “Touch of Evil” once too often.

Apart from some utterly gratuitous nudity, a few overly gruesome memory montages and the usual run of silly coincidences and contrivances that adorn genre pieces like this, there’s nothing terribly wrong with “The Forsaken.” But it’s the sort of run-of-the-mill horror yarn that’s not really worth a trip to the theatre and the high concession prices. A few months from now, though, when you slip the tape into your VCR and crack open a six-pack late on a Friday night, it should provide a reasonably good, if thoroughly brainless, time.