Returning home after a prolonged absence and his father’s mysterious death, Rodger (Richard Harmon) is forced to confront his repressed childhood and a mysterious spectral figure that is seemingly haunting his home. Bringing his college girlfriend Beth (Sara Thompson) and childhood friend Jordan (Echo Andersson) along, Rodger is soon caught up in solving a mystery that includes his brilliant mathematician mother and a sister who died when he was just a child. And so goes the plot of director BJ Verot’s feature debut, The Return.
Awkwardly marrying B-level horror with DTV sci-fi, Verot’s film, which he co-wrote with Ken Janssens, is essentially bifurcated, beginning by teasing out a compelling haunted house mystery. Then the intrigue deepens with the emergence of a demonic presence that can seemingly move through the house’s ventilation system and has a penchant for showing up just as a character turns a corner. However, the second half switches almost entirely to science fiction, as Rodger is forced to solve his mother’s equation. Supposedly, the equation will allow him to bend space and time and discover the ghost’s origins.
However, one of these sections works much better than the other. Beginning with an elongated reunion between Rodger and Jordan, who always speaks her mind, Verot and Janssens tease out an awkward triangle as Rodger tries to navigate between his unfiltered friend and more buttoned-up girlfriend, all while confronting a childhood that he has tried to forget. Within the background of these scenes, a malevolent presence – a black-clad woman with glowing eyes – moves throughout the house.
“…Rodger is soon caught up in solving a mystery that includes his brilliant mathematician mother and a sister who died…”
Despite very shoddy CGI – the ghost is truly laughable – the haunted house section of The Return is most effective, juxtaposing the tension of the three friends against flashbacks to his less-than-ideal family life. Further, as Rodger slowly uncovers his mother’s work, he is forced to contend with his childhood, including long-repressed psychotherapy sessions with the elusive Dr. Cox (Marina Stephenson Kerr) and a dead sister that he has tried to forget about.
However, as Rodger recalls more about his childhood, the film abruptly switches gears and genres, effectively Frankensteining two very different scripts. Already spoiled in the trailer, the title is quite literally, culminating in Rodger building a time machine for reasons best left unspoiled – if only because they are hard to follow. Unfortunately, in doing so, Verot’s awkward hybrid begins to pull in unexpected and entirely unwelcome directions, sacrificing a compelling set-up and a trio of good performances to showcase iMovie level special effects, leading to an utterly confounding final act.
While The Return is nothing if not ambitious in its attempts to switch between two distinct but related genres, the budgetary limitations and underdeveloped script ultimately distract from a compelling set-up. Further, by showing the creature/ghost early and often, The filmmakers diffuse whatever tension comes from the specter’s spooky presence. Unfortunately, despite three compelling performances – Harmon, Thompson, and Andersson play well off of the sexual tension between them – Verot’s film is a forgettable composite of competing interests and genres.
"…nothing if not ambitious in its attempts to switch between two distinct but related genres..."