February 10, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Why pay for ”Scream 3” when you can watch ”The Others” for free?

Look, I don’t blame people for going to see ”Scream 3.” A half-decent movie hasn’t opened since the last millennium, and the first two films in the series were good, gory fun. But if you went to see it Saturday night, you missed something spookier and more entertaining — the premiere of NBC’s new paranormal drama, ”The Others.”

That’s not to say that ”The Others” is perfect. But it is to say that ”Scream 3” is bloody awful. Come back, Kevin Williamson — all is forgiven! The original screenwriter was too busy wasting his time with ”Teaching Mrs. Tingle” and ABC’s ”Wasteland” to return for the third (and supposedly final) installment, and his voice is desperately missed.

The script, by Ehren Kruger (”Arlington Road”), tries to capture Williamson’s spirit with nonstop pop-culture references. But by setting the film on a Hollywood backlot and including pointless cameos from the likes of Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes (”Clerks,” ”Dogma,” etc.), the movie just feels like one big smug inside-Miramax joke.

The cast doesn’t cut it, either. Neve Campbell reprises her lead role, but she’s kept separate from her costars for far too long. Courteney Cox Arquette and David Arquette return to the scene of their courtship, but not since Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger in ”The Marrying Man” has a real-life couple displayed less on-screen chemistry. (Plus, it looks like David has been stealing all of his wife’s meals.)

The newcomers add nothing. Jenny McCarthy (looking grateful to have any kind of work after ”Jenny” and ”BASEketball”), Scott Foley (love him on ”Felicity,” but he’s miscast here as a cutthroat director), Patrick Dempsey (where’d they dig him up?), and a host of prime-time castaways (Lance Henriksen, Kelly Rutherford, Patrick Warburton) float through with little or no impact. Even Parker Posey can’t perk up this drab, underlit muddle.

”The Others,” on the other hand, has a bewitching cast that mixes appealing up-and-comers (including Melissa Crider, who should’ve become a star a few years back when she appeared — as Missy Crider — on ”Murder One”) with reliable old-timers (like the always-wonderful Bill Cobbs, who recently guested on ”The Sopranos” as an activist’s elderly father).

They play people with extrasensory powers who form a group on a university campus to study supernatural phenomena. The pilot suffered from a sappy subplot about a widow whom Crider’s Satori helps to put in touch with her late husband, but the main story line — about a dead co-ed haunting her old dorm room — was compellingly creepy. Directed by Mick Garris (”Stephen King’s The Stand”), ”The Others” also boasts impressive-for-TV production values and special effects. Oh, and one other thing: Unlike ”Scream 3,” it’s free.

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