SYDNEY -- Australia's tourism poobahs must be gnashing their teeth. Just as the "Wolf Creek" nightmares were starting to fade, along comes "Gone," a compact little shocker that again suggests the beautiful bleached vistas of the Outback are hopping with psycho killers. Sparing us the hard-core grotesquerie of the 2005 horror hit, first-time director Ringan Ledwidge conjures up an effectively creepy mood to accompany three young backpackers on an ill-fated road trip across the Aussie desert.

First-rate lensing of stunning roadside landscapes and nicely calibrated performances from the leads lift this economical U.K.-Australian production a notch above garden-variety horror. But when the cross-country adventure turns ugly and the familiar, more preposterous elements of the genre come into play, audiences might feel they've been down this well-signposted road before.

It's "Dead Calm" in a panel van.

Scott Mechlowicz plays Taylor, the mysterious stranger who uncovers the fissures in a young British couple's romance. Taylor is a charismatic and confident American, and the newly arrived Alex (Shaun Evans) falls under his spell during a drunken night out in Sydney. Taylor accompanies him to meet his long-term girlfriend, Sophie (Amelia Warner), and easily insinuates himself into their travel plans with his offer of a ride.

Eschewing the well-trodden tourist trails of the coast, the trio heads for the Outback. As civilization makes way for an empty expanse of heat, red dust and solitude, a creeping sense of unease purveys the freewheeling whirl of hostel stops and tequila shots.

Alex begins to suspect Taylor of harboring sinister motives. His anxiety grows in direct proportion to the American's interest in his girlfriend. Sophie, meanwhile, finds herself responding to the stranger's loose-limbed swagger and sexy nonchalance, though she'd surely balk if she saw the fanatical collection of Polaroid portraits he keeps in the glovebox.

We may know where this is heading, but Ledwidge makes sure it's a white-knuckled journey, ratcheting up the dread as the broken white lines tick inexorably past and the confines of the van close in on the travelers. Much of the film hinges on the believability of the three central performances, with Mechlowicz in particular finding the ambiguity in his character, an outwardly sure but psychotically needy drifter.

The uncomplicated nature of the narrative helps to generate genuine tension. Free from unexpected twists and shocks, it charts a measured, suspenseful course toward a climax that seems disproportionately gory for such a low-key film.

It wouldn't be a thriller without some implausibly convenient plot points. But screenwriters James Watkins and Andrew Upton (husband of Cate Blanchett) rely too heavily on the characters using fuzzy logic. "Just take the bus!" you'll find yourself wanting to hurl at the screen more than once.

Ledwidge, who previously worked on commercials, and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Ben Seresin, know about packaging. There may not be anything terribly novel about where "Gone" is going, but it looks good getting there.

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures and Working Title Films
Director: Ringan Ledwidge
Screenwriters: James Watkins, Andrew Upton
Producers: Nira Park, Deborah Balderstone
Executive producers: Natascha Wharton, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Jon Finn
Director of photography: Ben Seresin
Production designer: Elizabeth Mary Moore
Music: David Bridie
Costume designers: Emily Seresin, Rosa Diaz
Editor: Chris Dickens
Alex: Shaun Evans
Sophie: Amelia Warner
Taylor: Scott Mechlowicz
Lena: Victoria Thaine
Running time -- 87 minutes
No MPAA rating