Sarah Michelle Gellar
Since the demise of Buffy, Sarah Michelle Gellar has been making aliving from Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films. The Return isdifferent only in that it isn’t a remake but an original – but the style isvirtually unchanged from The Grudge or its sequel.
Gellar plays Joanna Mills, a young woman beset by terrible hallucinationsthat lead her to investigate the desolate town of La Salle. Mills hasclearly never seen any of Gellar’s films, as once there she makes all theclassic mistakes: taking a room in a deserted hotel, she befriends the localloner, and explores his empty house on her own.
This is the sort of by-the-numbers chiller Hollywood does perfectly well,and The Return works well while in ghost-train mode. The use of soundfor spooky effect is excellent – loud orchestral spikes, disembodiedwhispers and a repeating snatch of a song all conspire to send shivers downthe spine.
The photography follows the usual conventions of suspense: apparationsappear in mirrors, around corners, or between edits, and the town of LaSalle makes for an effective haunted house. The bleak visuals – blastedwastelands of corn-stubble and rusting, Gothic-looking farm equipment – havea sepulchral dread: what a shame, then, that the plotting and characters areso instantly forgettable.
It’s all just plain lazy. Mills has a father and a best friend, eachhastily introduced and as quickly forgotten. Attempts at red-herrings arebrief and unconvincing. Everyone Mills meets spouts odd dialogue thatranges from the obtuse to the absurd. In referencing the issue of self-harmthe film even manages to be crass (“Dad! It’s not normal for an 11-year-oldgirl to cut herself!”).
The supernatural is used as an excuse for poor characterisation andcoincidence: since we do not understand it is understood we will swallowanything. The Return won’t bear a rewatch in the way The SixthSense does: in retrospect, Mills’ stalker boyfriend must have had herradio-tagged, and widower Terry Stahl can smell danger from across town.
The test of any spooky story is in the revelation of its terriblesecrets, and here The Return gives up with a whimper. The back-storyis so dull and ordinary that it would barely warrant an X-File. The scriptdoesn’t even pretend to care: the villain is revealed by chance and hismisdeeds come without motivation or consequence.
Things wind down into a tedious flashback that takes great pains to tickoff every manifestation of the first half, leaving the audience with nothingto piece together. Indeed, the only reason not to leave the auditorium halfan hour early is the final twist, which by law all ghost stories must have,and though it’s no Ring-style stinger it does wrap things upneatly.
The J-horror mandate is closely followed: there is no gore and the filmaims to startle rather than to shock. But without the cunning of Shamalyanor the icy logic of The Ring, The Return is ultimately prettydisposable. A fun night out for teenagers: everyone else can rent aHitchcock instead.