NEW YORK — NO question about it, 1991 is turning into the year of the thriller - especially thrillers with a feminist, or at least feminine, slant. In recent months we've had ``The Silence of the Lambs,'' with Jodie Foster tracking down a serial killer who eludes every man in sight, and ``Sleeping With the Enemy'' and ``Mortal Thoughts,'' both about women who give abusive men a taste of their own violence. And now we have ``A Kiss Before Dying,'' again with a woman at the center of the story - only this time the story is so weak it's hard to care what's going to happen next.
Our heroine is Ellen Carlsson, whose powerful father owns a gigantic copper company and controls half the wealth in Pennsylvania, or so it seems. For all its money, though, the family seems cursed: One tragedy after another has befallen it, most recently the death of Ellen's twin sister. She apparently committed suicide, but we know she was murdered by an evil young man who had promised to marry her. Now the same young man is courting Ellen herself, and getting his hands on the family fortun e. Will he kill Ellen as he killed her sister? And what's behind his vendetta against the family?
Those are the big questions in ``A Kiss Before Dying,'' which was written and directed by James Dearden, best known for writing the mega-hit ``Fatal Attraction'' a few years ago. I happen to think ``Fatal Attraction'' is one of the most overrated films of the past decade - contrived, bombastic, and completely unconvincing if you give it even a moment's serious thought. But it's a masterpiece compared with ``A Kiss Before Dying,'' which has flat performances and clumsy camera work to match its ridiculous script. This is the kind of movie where characters exclaim in wonder at things the audience figured out 20 minutes ago, while the camera ping-pongs from one close-up to another as if this were a TV talk show.
No picture is 100 percent bad, of course, and even this one has a merit or two. The opening scene is effective in a gruesome sort of way. Max von Sydow has a certain dignity as the Carlsson family's troubled patriarch. And the climax has enough energy to get the movie's juices flowing for a few minutes. There are times when you can really believe the movie is based on a novel by Ira Levin, the inventive writer who's given us such clever and offbeat chillers as ``Rosemary's Baby'' and ``The Boys From Bra zil.''
But all the good points together can't make up for the film's mostly soggy acting, particularly by Sean Young and Matt Dillon in the leading roles, or for the technically inept way the voices have been dubbed over the picture - the characters sound like they're reading their lines from a phone booth. Even second-rate Hollywood movies generally have a certain amount of craft and professionalism, but there's precious little here. I say, kiss this one goodbye.