Growing up a genius in a family full of geniuses can really be taxing...
...The expectations are sky-high, there’s the constant fear of living forever in the shadow of your parents or other siblings, and you can’t get away with shit because everyone’s s’damn smart. So it’s almost too much when your neglectful alcoholic physicist mom is also a time-warping smoke ghost harpy and part-time skinless stand-in for Julia Cotton in Hellbound: Hellraiser II.
Just ask Rodger Emmerlich (Richard Harmon), the hero of co-writer/director BJ Verot’s The Return, he’ll tell you all about it during the East Coast premiere of the film at this year’s Salem Horror Fest.
Things get downright spooky when Rodger returns from genius college to his childhood home after his father dies under, you guessed it, mysterious circumstances. Accompanying him are his girlfriend Beth (Sara Thompson), a real Uggs and pumpkin spice number, and his perennially wise-cracking childhood bestie Jordan (Echo Porisky). Jordan is fond of drinking and driving, making cringe-worthy and insensitive comments, and being utterly transparent in her pining for Rodger.
Rodger makes some startling discoveries in the basement/laboratory of his ancestral home when he comes across psychiatric records and advanced mathematical formulae inked on massive white boards. After being given the slip at his father’s funeral, Rodger pursues Dr. Henrietta Cox (Marina Stephenson Kerr), the psychiatrist indicated in the cryptic notes. When she remains dodgy about the details, Jordan talks Rodger into doing a bit of late-night snooping in the good doctor’s office.
Rodger furrows his avian brow as his frustration grows at the influx of puzzle pieces that seem only to further obfuscate the bigger picture, rather than clarifying it. He lashes out at Beth and Jordan, driving them into separate corners only to make up with Jordan first as Beth witnesses from the stairs, confirming ours and her suspicions that there’s more than just beers, burps, and sex jokes passing between Jordan and Rodger.
Divisions are formed, sides are taken, and the goings on get stranger as things devolve into found footage, great leaps in logic, and the construction of a time gun. It’s truly a challenge to be any clearer than this without just giving you the whole darn thing.
It’s clear by the end of the film that the family history and their dynamics are really central to this tale having an emotional impact, a fact made more confounding by the sheer dearth of supporting scenes. Yes, there are a handful of throw away moments where pre-ghost drunk mom slaps Rodger and mutters about his father prancing about with some whore or another or chastises him because “Boys don’t play with pinwheels,” (???), but there’s certainly not enough to make what comes later matter as it should. Correcting our sins and the sins of our progenitors is a rich loom upon which to weave, but it requires a deftness of hand and a caliber of yarn that seems to have been sold out at the local Jo-Ann Fabrics.
Kevon Cronin’s score saves many a scene from near laughability due to the overwrought phantasmic effects of the physics mom smoke ghost. There’s so much smoke and ghost I’m half-expecting John Locke from season 4 of Lost to come bursting in at any moment. But then comes Cronin with a discordant string to put a little edge on Jim Henson’s shaggy ghoul.
While portions of the film can wander a bit deep into the woods of tropedom, there’s a good stiff shot of genre subversion that keeps the audience on the trail. The odd unexpected scare and strange morsel of intrigue allowed the movie to avoid the pitfalls and mucky slog it seemed to have set up for itself in the earlier portions.
No one here may be up for an Oscar or a Globe after this, but the performances fall into that Babe sweet spot where you’ll find yourself saying, “That’ll do, that’ll do.” That said, I can’t imagine a couple I would root for less than Rodger and Beth. They’re so stiff and dry together you could probably start a bonfire with them. Which might be shocking after their sex scene, which involved so much 300 thread-count pulled awkwardly up and over Beth’s body you’d be almost positive they must be drenched in sweat after the encounter. But alas, drier than a mummy’s butt crack. If you’re looking for the juice, it’s Rodger and Jordan all the way. Jordan may be a perpetual foot-in-mouth perpetrator, but better her foot than Beth’s crypt crack.
In terms of the film overall, I think Verot’s ambition gets the best of him. Wearing so many hats leaves little room for the scalp to breathe. He might fare better stepping back, letting someone else do the narrative heavy lifting on the page and freeing him up to work his magic everywhere else. It’s a solid piece of filmmaking, and it makes sense given Verot’s resume. The Return is very much a filmmaker ironing out the wrinkles and kinks in order to fine tune their craft. Let’s keep an eye on this one, he may just pull through.
By Paul Bauer