They

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The full title of this film is “Wes Craven Presents: They.” However, Wes Craven, creator of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series and director of the “Scream” films, did not write, produce or direct “They.” He merely “presents” it, whatever that means. I half-expected him to be at the theater, saying, “Here’s the movie. I hope you like it.”

No such luck, though, and Craven’s creative genius is sorely missed in this atmospheric, sloppy horror film whose goal is to prey on our childhood fears of the dark and things that lurk in our closets.

The prologue, set 19 years ago on a dark and stormy night, is actually rather scary, as a young boy insists to his mother that “they come for me when it’s dark.” Sure enough, once Mom has left the room, “they” come and drag the boy, screaming, under the bed.

Flash-forward to today, when the young boy, Billy, is no longer our main character. Now it’s Julia (Laura Regan), an ostrich-necked psychology grad student with a jocky boyfriend named Paul (Marc Blucas). Julia and Billy are life-long friends, which Paul doesn’t feel threatened by — except one night when he and Julia are gettin’ it on and they’re interrupted by a desperate phone call from a near-insane Billy.

Seems Billy and Julia have both been tormented by night terrors all their lives. Billy was apparently dragged off by “them” for an undisclosed length of time as a child, and now he fears they’re coming back for him. To avoid that, he kills himself, right there in a diner, which seems inconsiderate to me.

Anyway, Julia then meets two of the late Billy’s associates, Sam (Ethan Embry) and Terry (Dagmara Dominczyk), both of whom suffered the same night terrors. Whether these terrors represent the same abduction Billy experienced, or are merely harbingers of future abductions, is not explained. If any of them were hauled off as youngsters, they have blocked it out now.

But the night terrors are back, and they frequently occur in the daytime and while the victims are awake, which violates both of the major stipulations of what constitutes a “night terror.” At any rate, Julia begins to fear “they” really are coming for her, and so the question is how to stop them.

Director Robert Harmon, who has also directed an installment in Steven Spielberg’s “Taken” mini-series, gets a few things right. First, we never get a good look at “they.” Second, there’s a certain amount of intriguing psychology among the major characters — far more than one expects in a film like this.

We’ll credit screenwriter Brendan Hood for giving his characters some personality, but he must also take the blame for much of the film’s incoherence. Shall we make a list of the loose ends it leaves?

— Paul tries to drug a hysterical Julia one night, a move that comes from out of nowhere and would seem to indicate a sinister side to Paul, but it is never developed.

— “They” apparently leave tracking devices in people, but they are located in various parts of the body and don’t seem to be important anyway, since one character is still found by “they” even after removing the device.

— That Billy is the same person as the little boy in the prologue is something we assume, not that the movie tells us, and his having been abducted and then returned is implied only by a brief look at his bedroom wall, which is covered with newspaper clippings discussing the event. (One of the headlines is “Kinda Weird, Said Locals,” which, even considering that movies are never good at imitating newspaper headlines, is a bad headline.)

OK, but is it scary? Not especially. Most of the “scares” occur because something has jumped out suddenly, accompanied by loud noises on the film’s soundtrack. There is very little dread or apprehension, and though I like the creepy ideas suggested by the ending, they are not executed with anything more than perfunctory skill.

And with Julia being haunted by strange phone calls and viewing a videotape of her childhood therapy sessions, you’re apt to be reminded of “The Ring” — a far superior horror film that actually knew how to create suspense.

D (1 hr., 30 min.; PG-13, brief partial nudity, some mild sexuality, scattered profanity, scariness.)

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