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FISHING FOR A VICTIM

She's a Pisces and proud of it. She wears a fish medallion around her neck and likes to chat, '70s-style, about her astrological sign with the men she picks up. Then she likes to spread a plastic tarp on their rugs, remove her clothes down to bra and panties and, when they're entirely dazed by good fortune, tie blindfolds around their heads. Then she likes to stab them repeatedly and wail in anguish "Merry Christmas, Daddy."

In "Eye of the Beholder" she's played by Ashley Judd, the reigning queen of stealth box office. She makes nasty thrillers ("Kiss the Girls," "Double Jeopardy") that are released with no hype, very little fanfare (there's a difference), a lot of initial audience interest and weirdly continued audience support. Most critics tend to be lukewarm and worse but my do these movies rake it in.

And why not, I say? They are the true movie house heirs of the much-loved Hollywood "B" movie of yore -- made with strange panache and an outcast integrity of their own while those in charge are occupied with weightier matters.

Beyond that, Judd comes by her queendom rightly. She is: A) a Judd and therefore a member of modern showbiz's down-home aristocracy; B) a major babe which pleases male audiences no end and C) an awfully good actress. Her thrillers are box office bonanzas because men get to see thrillers starring a beautiful woman and women get to see a plucky heroine defeat male monstrosities against considerable odds.

Win-win, I believe they call it.

Are Ashley-lovers ready for Ashley the Serial Killer? Not to worry. By the time this very strange killer thriller is over, her little forays into homicidal psychopathology have all been mitigated by so many factors that you're rooting for her anyway. (For what it may count in the moral balance, the guys she knocks off mostly seem to be lizards anyway.)

It's based on a Marc Behm novel highly regarded by thriller consumers. It was already made into a French film. This one was written and directed by Australian Stephan Elliott, previously known for "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." It's the kind of movie that, depending on how you look at it, is either called "stylish" or "artsy." I'm leaning toward stylish on this one. If you're going to serve a plate of meat loaf, why not throw in some tasty garnish and some fancy-schmancy vegetables?

It's genuinely dream-like, which is to say that some will find it annoying to the max. Things happen suddenly and violently without much advance preparation.

Judd isn't even the top-billed star here. Ewan McGregor is. He plays "the eye," a wacked-out surveillance expert who seems to have electronic access to everyone and everything. He happens upon our anti-heroine while doing a routine job for his boss.

He's a man at the end of his tether. His wife left him and took their pre-teen daughter. He keeps seeing his young daughter in hallucinations everywhere -- jumping rope, playing paddleball, clicking castanets.

Instead of calling the cops on the gorgeous serial killer, he follows her around and spies on her every move in cities all across America. Spying turns into stalking. And, as this movie has it, stalking signifies something like love. He becomes her guardian angel, whether she likes it or not.

And whenever she gets into an uncomfortable scrape (the company of Jason Priestley, for instance, as a crazy and unbathed junkie), he swoops down and helps her out of it.

He knows what she is but loves her anyway in his demented way. (Leave for the car-ride home the subject of whether love and dementia can ever be interchangeable concepts.)

We wait, throughout the movie, for the inevitable moment when their dementias meet.

Will they intertwine for eternity? Or repel each other? Stay tuned.

I wouldn't pretend for a minute that this movie is satisfying in any way -- not as you watch it or after it's over either. Nor is it immune from being annoying. (After the first few daughter hallucinations, you get the point. Do you ever.) But in its slightly repellent way, it's always absorbing, even after it goes almost entirely kerflooey in the final half hour.

Maybe a style that was drier and more matter-of-fact would have solved the problem.

Whether it continues Ashley Judd's recent stealth supremacy at the box office is anyone's guess.

I'm voting no on that one, not after the first week anyway.

Think of it as a multiplex hallucination -- weird, interesting and probably fleeting.

RATING: 2 1/2 stars

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