The last time we saw the streets of Manhattan being terrorized by a humongous, otherworldly creature, not counting "King Kong," it was when that bloated "Godzilla" remake went on a rampage in 1998.

Well, the giant lizard genre has been stripped down and brought into the new millennium courtesy of idea man J.J. Abrams, screenwriter Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves in the form of "Cloverfield" -- think "Godzilla Unplugged" -- with chillingly effective results.

Ever since the first teaser was unveiled last summer in front of "Transformers," the picture, with its subsequent viral marketing campaign, has sparked considerable speculation as to whether it would emerge as more of a "Blair Witch Project" than a "Snakes on a Plane."

Even though it paints a bleakly nihilistic picture (you won't find any Will Smith-type monster butt-kicking heroics) it's also unlike anything else out there, and with its tidy running time (84 minutes) and tidier budget ($25 million) that doesn't skimp on cool effects, "Cloverfield" would seem destined to bring in plenty of youth-skewing green for Paramount this Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.

Filmed exclusively from a camcorder's-eye view, the film starts off unexceptionally at a going away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who's relocating to Japan.

Buddy Hud (T.J. Miller) has been handed videographer duties, even though he's clearly a novice, but his shaky camera work still manages to capture some personal drama going on between Rob and longtime friend, Beth (Odette Yustman).

But the evening's cut short by a jolting explosion, exploding fireballs and a subsequent blackout.

By the time the lights come back on, there's panic in the streets, along with initial glimpses of the gargantuan thing leaving mass destruction in its path.

To its credit, the script, which is obviously trading on our post-Sept. 11 anxieties, never offers any explanations for the creature's presence.

We never know where it came from or why it's doing what it's doing, it just is what it is, and it seems that what it is, is really pissed off.

Instead, director Reeves, who had partnered with producer Abrams on "Felicity," and screenwriter Goddard, whose previous credits include Abrams' "Alias" and "Lost," focus on the small group of individuals, played by fresh-faced young actors not yet suffering from overexposure.

The people they're playing aren't particularly interesting or developed, but who has time to exhibit intriguing character traits when you're trying to outrun a monster?

Besides, there's something refreshing about a monster movie that isn't filled with the usual suspects, like The Hero, The Rebel and The Cynic.

On the technical end, while it might seem like Michael Bonvillain's handheld camerawork is doing much of the shaking for you, the resulting claustrophobic intensity effectively sets the stage for the creepy jolts provided by the potent visual effects, nicely done by Double Negative and Tippett Studio.

And while there's no score to speak of, composer Michael Giacchino ("The Incredibles," "Ratatouille") serves up a terrific end credit suite that pays tribute to monster movies past with its affectionately over-the-top blasts of brass.

Paramount Pictures presents a Bad Robot production
Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Drew Goddard
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
Executive producers: Guy Riedel, Sherryl Clark
Director of photography: Michel Bonvillain
Production designer: Martin Whist
Costume designer: Ellen Mirojnick
Editor: Kevin Stitt
Marlena: Lizzy Caplan
Lily: Jessica Lucas
Hud: T.J. Miller
Rob: Michael Stahl-David
Jason: Mike Vogel
Beth: Odette Yustman
Running time -- 84 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13