"You OK, deputy? You look like you've seen a ghost."
I've always enjoyed Val Kilmer's performances and thought he got robbed when the Academy didn't even nominate him for his work in "Tombstone." So it's a little disheartening to see him in a low-budget, essentially direct-to-video horror thriller like 2010's "The Traveler." Not that he doesn't put in his usual capable performance, but the role seems beneath him. Indeed, most of his roles lately seem beneath him. It's possible he's eating his way out of better parts. I dunno.
Director Michael Oblowitz ("The Breed," "The Foreigner") and screenwriter Joseph C. Muscat ("White Collar") seem more intent on creating eerie atmospherics than on telling a credible story. Not that anyone would expect a horror flick to be entirely logical, but at least we have a right to expect it to be consistent within the fictional world it creates. "The Traveler" fails in this all-important regard. None of it makes any sense, with things happening simply to move the plot forward, and no explanations or concerns for even a fantastic plausibility.
In the beginning, we get some back story: A stranger abducts and murders a little girl. The girl's father, a police detective, Alexander Black (Dylan Neal), and five of his police buddies find a drifter and figure he's their man. In their anger and frustration, they beat the drifter into a coma from which he never recovers.
A year passes. The same six cops are on duty Christmas Eve, working out of the station house. A stranger (Kilmer) walks in, claiming he's there to make a series of murder confessions. He appears to be confessing to future crimes, and after each of his confessions, a cop dies shockingly. One by one, somebody is knocking them off. Is it Jason, Freddy, Michael? Should we care?
How clever does a viewer have to be to recognize that the stranger, who calls himself "Nobody," has no fingerprints, cannot be photographed, whistles the "Lacrimosa" from Mozart's "Requiem," and is able to be in two places at once is a vengeful spirit? And that's the movie. You know exactly what's happening about ten minutes in and how the whole thing is going to unfold. There is no suspense because we have no sympathy for the victims and have no real knowledge of any of them in any case. How can we care about people we know nothing about and people the story leads us to believe deserve what they're getting, anyhow?
Although Kilmer seems almost to sleepwalk through his part, that's apparently what the movie's character demands. The "Traveler" or "Drifter" or "Mr. Nobody" or whatever we want to call him is quiet, soft-spoken, and all the more sinister for it. It doesn't require that Kilmer stretch much as an actor. (As an aside, with a soft, slighty raspy voice and added bulk, Kilmer is beginning to look and sound like an older Marlon Brando. Remember when Steven Seagal began wearing his shirts outside his pants in order to hide his weight? I hope Kilmer trims down for future roles.)
The rest of the cast are stereotype cops. Dylan Neal's police detective is coarse, unshaven, hard-nosed, and unrelenting; Desk Sgt. Gulloy (Christopher Gauthier) is a bespectacled paper-pusher; Deputy Jack Hawkins (John Cassini) is a bullying coward; etc. And all of them except the one beautiful woman (Camille Sullivan) among their number are male chauvinist jerks with foul mouths and macho-sexist attitudes.
Things happen for no discernable reason. The script sets the story on Christmas Eve. Why? The script also sets the story in what looks like the 1980's. Again, why? When their buddies start dying, the others never bother to call for an ambulance or a coroner. Why? Later, when the telephones stop working, presumably because the "Traveler" turns them all off, the cops feel helpless because they can't phone for back up. Yet a moment later, we see one of them using a two-way police radio to call one of their own. So, why couldn't they use it to call for help earlier?
Of course, if you simply like violence in movies, this one provides it. It's loaded with horrendous blood and gore as each victim gets knocked off in the most-brutal, and sometimes most-extended, manner possible. Additionally, if you appreciate stock, Hollywood horror-movie clichés, "The Traveler" offers up those, too. For instance, when faced with a supernatural antagonist, the cops split up to look for it, the better for the Demon/Traveler/Drifter/Nobody to attack them one by one. Then, the whole thing concludes with one of the dumbest endings ever.
"The Traveler" looks well made for a small, independent film, the filmmakers getting the most out of a limited, police-station setting and using dark shadows to good advantage. But the movie needs more than just a predictable story about a vindictive ghost who's killing people. The movie needs more movie.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the filmmakers framed the movie in a very wide theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, which Paramount transferred to DVD anamorphically (enhanced for widescreen TV's). The image quality looks fairly good, if you ignore the intentionally grainy opening shots. There's more-than-acceptable object delineation and detailing, and reasonably deep black levels. The filmmakers most often shroud the colors in darkness, but what hues we do get to see appear natural and realistic enough.
There's a lot to like in the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, more than in the movie itself. The soundtrack spreads out widely across the front channels; it usually displays a good degree of clarity and depth; and it occasionally flashes moments of strong dynamics. On the less positive side, when the music gets loud, it takes on a rough, edgy quality; and there isn't much activity in the rear speakers until late in the movie. Early on, we hear some rain noise in the surrounds; later, we hear some sounds of the beating the cops inflict (sounds that make no sense in the rear channels, but who's to complain), and a very effective and creepy voice.
I don't suppose the people who made this small, independent film thought to shoot any extras for it, and when Paramount decided to distribute it, they probably didn't feel it was worth filming anything extra for the DVD, either. As a result, we get a few previews, fifteen scene selections, English as the only spoken language, and English subtitles. That's the size of it.
"The Traveler" strikes me as the kind of film somebody might make for cable TV, although as an exercise in bloody, mindless gore, I'm not even sure the SyFy Channel would air it. Not without some edits, anyway. There's not much going on in the movie we haven't seen before or couldn't guess from the opening scenes. The only real question is why Val Kilmer agreed to be in it. Maybe everybody has to eat.