Maybe it was inevitable that the seemingly never-ending stream of not-screened-for-critics horror movies would eventually produce a small gem. Maybe not. But after the meager fare of The Grudge 2, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, and their ilk, the merely compelling The Return feels like a feast. That could be as much for what it isn't as what it is. No teens get graphically tortured, and there's no logic-free, made-in-Japan dream imagery passing as a plot. Instead, director Asif Kapadia and first-time screenwriter Adam Sussman look back to older sources of inspiration to create a supernatural thriller about a troubled woman's long-delayed return to her Texas home.
How far back? Think Twilight Zone. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a restless representative of a trucking firm lured back to the Lone Star State by the promise of a big sale. Once inside the Texas border, she starts having flashbacks to the era of her youth—though not her own life. Those visions may or may not have something to do with a childhood car accident she experienced with dad Sam Shepard, but they almost certainly have something to do with a ruggedly handsome older man (Peter O'Brien) and a creepy redneck (J.C. MacKenzie).
Kapadia throws in some requisite cheap jolts, but The Return's most effective scenes involve the creepy repetition of Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams" and long, smooth, hallucinatory takes. (The assistance of cinematographer Roman Osin and composer Dario Marianelli, both of last year's Pride & Prejudice, doesn't hurt either.) In spite of those virtues, The Return is pretty far from perfect. As usual, Gellar neither adds to nor detracts from the quality of the project around her, but no one else steps in to fill the void of charisma she leaves. The twist, though clever, pretty much announces itself at mid-point, and Kapadia sometimes confuses "dreamlike" with "sluggish." Yet for a film dumped unceremoniously and packaged in the most generic way imaginable, it's more haunting than it has any right to be, thanks to its love of long, lonesome highways and the way the violence of the past bleeds into the present.