Not that The Return is a terrible embarrassment (not in the age of The Wicker Man and When a Stranger Calls remakes..)Instead, it’s merely dreary. It’s a low-key, somber, slow-moving, paranormal mystery that features that washed-out, metallic color palette which is apparently de rigueur – and all the rage – in the genre today. Consequently, the film looks like a lot of other films, and the story is as old as the hills: that of two souls (spiritually speaking…) crossing in the dead of night by coincidence, connecting and perhaps changing places.
The Return is the story of Joanna (Gellar), an aggressive saleswoman who harbors some very bad memories from her childhood, particularly a visit to a carnival where a stranger appeared to chase her and called her, menacingly “Sunshine.” Joanna’s response to the interloper’s approach was to cut herself on the leg with a piece of glass, and she’s been self-mutilating ever since. Whenever things get a little scary, she cuts herself to relieve the pressure. Personal note: I worked as an office manager in a psychology office for a time, and the most harrowing experience I ever had on the job involved a self-mutilator. She checked in at the front desk, asked to use the bathroom, and then proceeded to break the mirror there, take a shard of glass, and slice open both her arms – length wise. I’ll never forget the amount of blood, when she stepped out of the rest room, or the clean-up of that event. So yeah, self-mutilation is pretty scary, and it’s actually handled with a high degree of accuracy in the film…though the blood is minimized, this being PG-13 and all.
Back to the movie. On a business trip to Texas, Joanna begins to experience some strange visions. Her car radio mysteriously plays only one song repeatedly, (a Patsy Cline tune), and when she exits the car in terror, she happens upon a road-side accident between two other vehicles. In this scene, Joanna suffers from the horror movie malady of LPV (Limited Peripheral Vision) rather than self-mutilation, because she literally stumbles onto the scene (even though the other vehicles should have been visible from her windshield). Then Joanna blacks out and the next morning, she’s sleeping road side and there’s no evidence of the accident.
Later, Joanna experiences visions of a mysterious “red bar” and is again accosted by her bogeyman stranger, the “Sunshine” fella. So we’re off into the journey to uncover her past, and learn all the dark secrets of a town called La Salle. This involves meeting a redneck stranger, Terry Stahl, and Kathryn perked up when he showed up on screen…she’s got a thing for hot scruffy red-necks.
Anyway, It’s not so much that the movie is bad…only that it’s overly familiar. Horror aficionados will recognize the plot from at least one first season X-Files episode, and going back much further, it was the plot of the very first episode of One Step Beyond, back in 1959, “The Bride Possessed.” Of course, there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them, and at times the mystery here is engaging. You want to see how things turn out. But I did find the movie infuriating at points. Too often, we seem to slip into an alternate reality and it is impossible to discern if the scary event that just happened is “real” or Joanna’s hallucination. Such ambiguity can be handled well and consistently, but that’s not the case here. Also, there’s never an explanation given for the car radio going nuts and playing the Patsy Cline song. It’s just there to make a creepy moment. Also, the movie has a stylistic hiccup: mini-zooms. At tense moments, the camera lunges forward just a hair, like it’s a mini-zoom, and this quickly becomes annoying, and a little funny.
During The Return, I nodded off once, and Kathryn nodded off once. Then we tag-teamed each other and used the buddy system to make certain we could stay awake through the remainder of the picture. We sincerely wanted to finish the movie; it sparked enough interest that we wanted to see how it all turned out.
You can tell from The Return’s alternate ending that it really wants to be about re-incarnation, but that’s not quite the deal in the theatrical version we watched. I will say this, the alternate ending is better than the one on the movie. And when I researched my One Step Beyond book and looked into paranormal phenomena, the one that had the most anecdotal (and difficult to dismiss…) evidence was reincarnation. So The Return maybe should have stuck with the other ending. Oopsy.
Finally, the only way to deal with a problem is to admit you have one. So, I admit it, I’m an unreformed, unabashed Sarah Michelle Gellar fan. I think she’s gorgeous and talented (and she’s invited to my house anytime…), but she looks way too thin and a little haggard here. My advice, Sarah? Lay off the supernatural thrillers for a while, and eat a frigging cup cake or something. Oh, and make that Buffy movie.