Fifteen years ago, Bret Easton Ellis' ''Less Than Zero'' was tamed and detoxified into a movie bland enough to be marketed to the John Hughes demo. The Rules of Attraction, Roger Avary's floridly startling adaptation of Ellis' 1987 novel, has arrived with a smaller profile -- and that's a shame, since it brings Ellis' glibly corrosive vision of elite college thrill seekers to life in a way that can't be dismissed. Avary plots out every scene with voyeuristic ingenuity, using split screen, reverse motion, and, at one point, a rapid-fire video diary of a bacchanalian trip through Europe to create a world in which time is racing forward yet standing still: the eternal present tense of days and nights lived in the zombie pleasure zone.
Avary, like Ellis, has a taste for decadence that can't be faked. Fleshing out the author's groovy porno vision of the Real World, he has caught the suicide swagger of college kids who connect by turning themselves into emotional whores who act as if connection isn't possible. ''The Rules of Attraction'' is the kind of Gen-X-treme, straight-meets-gay, boy-eats-girl bash that the artless show-off Gregg Araki (''The Doom Generation'') has been trying to bring off for years; it's a party-hearty teen flick that scalds like acid. The cast is a pitch-perfect assemblage of pretty young things, but James Van Der Beek, as a slit-eyed dorm stud, proves that he can be an actor of cruel force.