In the past few years, the term “PG-13 horror film” has become almost synonymous with remakes of Japanese films (Grudge, Dark Water, The Ring, Pulse) or just plain bad movies (White Noise, Darkness Falls). The trailers and marketing for The Return in no way hints that their film will be any different, which is a damn shame, as it is a refreshingly slow-paced and ultimately rewarding film.
The film opens with a young girl and her father (Sam Shepard) at a carnival. She believes she is being followed, but, as her father explains, it’s probably just trauma from a car accident they suffered a few months earlier. Of course, we have no idea if her stalker was real or imagined…
Cut to 14 years later. The young girl is now Sarah Michelle Gellar (brunette for the first time in ages, pleasing this “brunettes over blondes” reviewer), a traveling saleswoman based out of St. Louis. She has just scored an ‘in’ with a highly lucrative customer down near her hometown in Texas, and she is eager to close the deal. She is not as interested, however, in catching up with her old friends or her father, whom we learn she has barely spoken to in years.
As soon as she arrives in the area, strange things begin happening. She sees other faces in her mirror, has a flashback to a bar she swears she has never been to, and worst of all, she once again starts seeing her mystery stalker from when she was younger. Eventually she begins to piece together what all these things mean (as well as revealing why she is so estranged from her family), while evading the stalker and developing a friendship with a town outcast (Peter O’Brien) who may or may not have killed his wife.
As previously stated, the film has a slow pace, far slower than the ads would have you believe. But that’s a pro, not a con. Despite the teen-friendly rating, the film is more for older audiences. Not everything is spelled out for you, instead, in some cases, the film simply provides the information and the viewer can process it on their own. It’s nice to see a film that doesn’t have ghostly children making weird noises every five minutes in order to make the film “scary” and avoid having to tell a story that makes any sense. There are some supernatural elements, but otherwise it’s a fairly grounded film with a resolution that explains everything if you are paying attention. Nowadays, that is a rarity, and a commendable one at that.
Gellar, so great on Buffy, has to carry the film alone for the most part, and does a decent job, but she can be better. It’s admirable that (so far) her sporadic film career does not just have her playing a Buffy clone, but on occasion, one wishes her character would be more pro-active instead of walking around puzzled. As her father, Sam Shepard adds a bit of class to his blue collar Texan role, though he is sadly MIA through most of the film after the first 20 minutes or so.
The state of Texas should reward Director Asif Kapadia and DP Roman Osin; it hasn’t looked this beautiful on screen in ages. And for once, the editing allows the viewer to appreciate the settings, rather than cutting every 2 seconds as most modern horror films tend to do. Writer Adam Sussman, in his first feature, needs some improvement in the dialog area, but should be commended for writing a script that demands viewer attention and patience rather than try to impress studio execs with a Saw II like frenzied pace.
All in all, the film will disappoint those expecting a Grudge-esque fake-scare-a-thon, which is precisely what the trailers make the film seem like. But those who know better (or better, know nothing at all) should enjoy the change of pace. Would it have made a better short film or Twilight Zone episode? Probably, but it’s still a good and interesting film, provided you have the patience. There is nothing wrong with a slow pace so long as the film’s story requires it. Some have complained about the lack of killing/scares in the film – but there is no need for either to tell this particular story.
And either way, it’s certainly better than sitting through another Japanese remake sequel.