You know you might just see dead people when you enter a bathroom lit in the aqua blue tint “The Ring”. Especially if you’re Sarah Michelle Gellar and you’ve just faced down a “Grudge” or “2″. But Gellar’s character in “The Return”, Joanna Mills, has no idea what’s in store for her, walking aimlessly into blood red bars and ramshackle houses without recognizing the warning signs of horror movie danger. We recognize them, however, since “The Return” is constructed like a tinker toy built from spare parts left over by American remakes of Japanese copies of “Ringu”. Of course nothing is entirely original, but “The Return” is at least two steps removed from the first generation copy.
The slow-bore plot has Gellar as Joanna Mills, a hard-working, no-time-for-love sales rep for a St. Louis based trucking firm, a job which has her travelling across the country handling accounts. Ever since a traumatic childhood car accident, Joanna has lost her sense of self, and feels haunted by someone or something. A “return” to her home state of Texas, and particularly the dead end town of La Salle, act as a catalyst for a series of nightmarish visions involving the murder of a young woman Joanna has never met before. When she decides to stay in La Salle to find out the truth about her past, Joanna is helped by the mysterious Terry Stahl (Richie Sambora look-a-like Peter O’Brien), who many believed murdered a girl years ago. It all seems to be connected to the aforementioned traumatic car accident Joanna was in with her father (Sam Shepard!), which leads to a poor man’s Shyamalan ending.
Bored yet? I certainly was. What might have been a lesser episode of “The Twilight Zone” penned by an overworked Rod Serling on a nicotine rush is s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d out to almost 90 minutes in “The Return”. This kind of near plotless “thriller” requires a genuine talent at the helm, someone like Mario Bava or even Takashi Shimizu. Asif Kapadia, the helmsman of this mess, is clearly no Takashi Shimizu. In any one of his “Grudge” movies, Shimizu can take the same nothing plot and direct circles around the empty center. In “The Return”, Kapadia just keeps digging in the center, turning his small hole into a grand canyon.
Kapadia also has no talent for creating suspense or covering action. There are several hide and seek sequences in which only God or Kapadia knows how Gellar made her escape, the frenzied action indicated by a blurring hand held camera. This is coupled with Kapadia’s sense of pretension in filming the sun setting as though he were Vittorio Storaro shooting “Friday the 13th”. It’s just the wrong approach. Texas is made to look worse here than the Pioneer town in Clive Turner’s “Howling: New Moon Rising”, which at least padded its story with well choreographed line dances. I would’ve liked to see Sarah Michelle and Richie Sambora line dance. Who knows, it could’ve saved the movie.
The performances are all blah. Gellar has played this note before, but is at her best when she is challenged by Sam Shepard to really play a scene. Question: Why is Sam Shepherd in this movie? And if you had Sam Shepherd in your movie, why would you give him no more than 37 seconds of screen time? Maybe Sam needed the cashola to work on a play.
The final reel is edited by a crack team of ADHD sufferers on Benzedrine. We get a slasher movie stalk and slash scene with no sense of space, flashbacks to a murder, flashbacks to Joanna’s car crash, Richie Sambora boarding up his house, and some kind of mural that means something forgotten about in the dog ears of Adam Sussman’s screenplay. However, the main twist is interesting and makes you imagine a whole other movie, much better than this one, which could’ve explored the idea more fully.
At the end of “The Return”, you are just so damn tired of watching it that you no longer care who is actually what or why it all happened. I know that many of my questions remain unanswered, but when there are greater mysteries in the world like, “Who Shot JFK?”, I am content to leave these ones unanswered. I’ll just chalk it up to the supernatural, which they say works in mysterious ways.
When “The Return” hits DVD, skip it and wait for it to play on cable. Then watch the beginning, channel surf for about an hour or so, and then watch the ending. That’s all there is. Except for one scene where a would-be rapist is punched squarely in the windpipe, causing the actor to perform the scene like a complete jack-ass. Now, that’s a keeper.
Asif Kapadia (director) / Adam Sussman (screenplay)
CAST: Sam Shepard …. Ed Mills
Sarah Michelle Gellar …. Joanna Mills
Frank Ertl …. Ambrose Miller
Adam Scott …. Kurt Setzer
Peter O’Brien …. Terry Stahl
Kate Beahan …. Michelle
Brad Leland …. Mr. Marlin
Bonnie Gallup …. Bella
Brent Smiga …. Higgins