The Return

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Long ago, Sarah Michelle Gellar made a career decision. On television, she would star in one brilliant cult hit, impressing people with both her dramatic range and her butt-kicking abilities. In movies, meanwhile, she would only star in complete crap.

“The Return” is a bleak, listless horror film that hews so closely in plot and tone to Gellar’s “The Grudge” that it might as well be a sequel — except that we just had a “Grudge” sequel. In which Gellar also appeared. Clearly, the former Buffy the Vampire Slayer is sticking to her principles.

Gellar plays Joanna Mills, a sales representative for a St. Louis shipping company who goes to Texas in pursuit of a big account and decides, hey, as long as she’s here, she might as well exorcise some old demons. You see, when Joanna was 11, something weird happened in La Salle, Texas, and she hasn’t been the same since. She has occasional hallucinations about a man chasing her. She hears his voice in telephone static. Sometimes she goes into bathroom stalls in seedy bars and cuts herself.

Sure, you’re thinking, that’s all pretty typical behavior for a teenage girl. But Joanna isn’t a teenage girl! She’s like 25 or something.

So she heads to La Salle, where her jealous co-worker Kurt (Adam Scott) shows up just so he can try to rape her. Why he had to follow her for hundreds of miles instead of doing it back in St. Louis, where they both live, I don’t know. I also don’t know why Kurt then disappears. Heck, I don’t know why Kurt was in the movie to begin with.

Anyway, Joanna meets a guy in La Salle named Terry (Peter O’Brien), a brooding loner outcast whose farmhouse inflames Joanna’s hallucinations even further. She seems to be channeling a murder victim. But who killed her? And when? And why? And who cares?

Director Asif Kapadia is not interested in shocking revelations or scary scenarios. He focuses instead on spooky music and jarring sound effects — you know, the tricks filmmakers use to hide the fact that there’s nothing that is actually scary about their movies.

Even more bizarre is the story’s insistence on setting up Joanna and Terry as potential love interests. Their somber, whispery romance is the very picture of blandness, just two gloomy souls boring each other. I get drowsy just remembering them.

The screenwriter, Adam Sussman, also had a credit on the short-lived “Night Stalker” series from last fall. I’m not surprised: My thoughts as I watched the mystery unfold in “The Return” were that the mystery is not substantial enough for a movie. It should be a single episode in some supernaturally themed TV show, where it occupies only 45 minutes of time and can be followed the next week by something better. Unfortunately, “The Return” will probably be followed only by another cheap, unimaginative PG-13 horror flick, accompanied by increasing sadness for Sarah Michelle Gellar’s career.

D (1 hr., 25 min.; PG-13, moderate violence, a little mild sexuality, one F-word.)

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