This will go into a few spoilers, so if you haven’t seen The Return… well, I seriously doubt it’s on your must see list.
What Went Wrong: The Return
By Shalimar Sahota
August 7, 2013
Sarah Michelle Gellar is practically synonymous with her role as Buffy Summers from the popular TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. During her time on the show, she managed to star as part of an ensemble cast in the slasher films I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2. When the show came to an end in 2003, she didn’t stray too far from the horror genre, starring in a remake of The Grudge and its sequel (though she doesn’t have a lot of screen time in the sequel). Both films opened at the top of the US box office (The Grudge in particular opened to $39 million in 2004). With The Return, Sarah Michelle Gellar gets her name above the title in another supernatural horror film, produced on small production budget of $15 million. Surely this can’t fail?
Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a sales representative for a trucking company. Quite how that worked out is anyone’s guess. She also happens to be suffering from weird visions, the kind that involve familiar locations and the murder of a woman. Recognizing one of the locations as La Salle, a small town in Texas, she makes a visit (checking herself into a God awful place known as “Arlo’s Bar-B-Q”), hoping to find meaning to it all. Once there she befriends the mysterious Terry Stahl (Peter O’Brien), who helps her from a rough situation. Slowly she discovers that he might be connected to her visions.
Financed by Intrepid Pictures and Rogue Pictures, with the latter also distributing the film in the US, The Return opened on November 10, 2006. They probably realized that they had an unconventional horror film on their hands and so opened it on a little over 1,900 screens. Reviews were dreadful, describing the film as a “slow-bore,” “convoluted,” “uneventful,” and “forgettable.” At the time, Borat was riding high at the box office, leaving The Return to open quietly at #9 with a disappointing take of $4.4 million. It didn’t last very long and took just $7.7 million at the US box office. Overseas it earned $4.2 million, making for an overall worldwide gross of $11.9 million. The following year, it was released straight to DVD across a few countries in Europe. So what happened here?
Penned by first-time screenwriter Adam Sussman, he revealed how he was partially inspired by documented cases where children had suddenly found themselves with memories of people and places they couldn’t have known about. Asif Kapadia signed on to direct in 2004. Kapadia’s previous film was The Warrior back in 2001, a story of a warrior who renounces his violent past, only to have it catch up with him when he is hunted. The film told its story via the visuals and with very little dialogue. Strangely, that’s something Kapadia has carried over for The Return, with the cinematography by Roman Osin being very good, but it cannot hide how painfully slow the film is.
“It's quite different,” said Kapadia of The Return in an interview with IGN before its release. “The audience I'd say is in for quite a ride because, as one follows the film, they're really not quite so sure as to where things are going to go.” If anything, the ride is a bit like stepping into a BMW only to have the casing lifted away to reveal that you’re actually on a tricycle.
It turns out that Joanna’s visions are of a murder that took place about 15 years ago. She doesn’t so much find the killer, but more accidentally stumbles upon him when buying snacks (I am not making this up). While Gellar is certainly capable of playing the vulnerable Joanna, it is both interesting and odd seeing the former vampire slayer in a role where she’s running away from danger. She seems ill-suited to such a character when we know that she’s often been seen on screen playing strong women. Also, do her fans really want to see her in a film where she’s self-harming herself?
Gellar said of her director, “Asif found it all so magical; that rubbed off on everybody else. He brought European flair to this American story.” One could argue that maybe he brought too much, since The Return comes across as an independent drama masquerading as a horror for mainstream audiences. The poster (likely a reworked design on the poster for The Skeleton Key) and the trailer do a good job of making the film look a lot scarier than it actually is. However, maybe it would have worked out better if it were marketed more as a drama and less a horror. It’s really not very scary at all.
Also, The Grudge 2 had opened the month before. While it was a moderate hit, it didn’t earn as much as the previous film, suggesting that maybe audiences were no longer in the mood for the supernatural. Even though The Return is an entirely different film, from its poster, trailer, the involvement of Sarah Michelle Gellar, and opening fairly close to The Grudge sequel, it might have been enough for some audiences to mistake it as more of the same.
From talking to the BBC eight months after it was released, Kapadia described making the film as “a very political experience,” suggesting that his hand was being forced by those higher up the ladder. “It's like if someone else above you wants something else, whether it's right or wrong, they will get their way,” he said. “To be brutally honest, it was a very difficult experience and, for me, not the way I want to make films.”
It’s certainly possible that maybe there was a better film on the page, only for Kapadia to be told by “someone else” while shooting to make some changes. Adding to this theory is the trailer itself, which includes a few scenes that didn’t make it in the final film. The DVD release has ten minutes worth of deleted scenes (including an alternate ending), though given how slow moving the film is during its 90-minute runtime, maybe it was for the best that they were cut. Also, during the final act, The Return decides to turn into a slasher film with flashbacks, with the killer chasing Joanna. Its inclusion was probably added by “someone else” to make the film more horror-like. We also don’t really know much about this crazy killer, only that he seemed to be so infatuated with a woman that he decided to kill her.
The Return is a film that would have been more suited going straight to DVD (it might have even worked better as a TV drama), but it just so happened to get a theatrical release given the involvement of the lead actress. The biggest offense is marketing it as a horror film when it fails to provide any decent thrills or scares. Audiences likely heeded the reviews and stayed away. However, anyone that did watch it probably learned that it’s not a good idea to have visions while you’re driving.