Rutger Hauer has pale, blue, rock candy eyes that seem to be on the verge of melting, and a shark's smile; in "The Hitcher," he seems less like a villain than a romantic figure possessed with demons. And he spends the movie seducing the camera, making goo-goo eyes at it, whispering not-so-sweet nothings in its ear.

But this remarkable performance, alas, is the only thing that lifts "The Hitcher," a joyless thriller, out of the routine.

It should come as no surprise that a movie called "The Hitcher" is about a hitchhiker. This one has the allegorical name Ryder (Hauer), and he goes around killing people. Jim (C. Thomas Howell), a greasy, nervous young man hired to drive someone's Cadillac cross-country, picks Ryder up at the roadside, gets one look at the shark's smile, and immediately regrets it. "What do you want from me?" he whimpers. And Ryder purrs that he wants just what he wanted from his last driver -- his arms, legs and head.

Jim eludes Ryder, temporarily, but being a lad of good conscience, tracks him, trying to foil his next murder. This puts him in the right place at the right time for everything Ryder does, and the frame-up only doubles the killer's pleasure: He's not just chopping off heads, he's tormenting an innocent. Ryder would hate to see an untimely end come to this sadistic game, so he becomes Jim's protector as well as his prey, harrying the police on Jim's tail even as Jim is tailing him.

This set-up is intriguing, and you wish director Robert Harmon had made more of it. But the action of "The Hitcher," while competent, is curiously paced; Harmon is an impatient editor, always zipping things up too soon, rarely allowing his suspense to build. And Harmon is oddly indifferent to his movie's lurid situations -- the film feels cold and technical.

Much of the problem lies with Howell, a dilute, rabbity actor in the Tim Hutton mold. Everyone acts Howell off the screen, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, who displays an easeful gruffness as the girl who joins Jim. With Howell's weightlessness, the deeper elements of the story -- the byplay between guilt and innocence, for example -- never accumulate. The script (by Eric Red) is laconic in a dull way, much Cain but hardly able. And Harmon and his cinematographer, John Seale, have shot the movie in such brown murk, you can hardly make anything out. By the end, you're willing to forgive Ryder his worst if someone would just change the light bulb.

The Hitcher, opening today at area theaters, is rated R, and contains graphic violence and profanity.