[Screen It]

(2006) (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Peter O'Brien) (PG-13)

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Horror: A woman tries to solve the mystery of what's causing her to have nightmarish visions of a past event.
Joanna Mills (SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR) is a successful sales associate for a Midwestern trucking company. Always on the road, she's good at what she does, meaning she easily beats out her coworker and ex-lover Kurt (ADAM SCOTT) to pitch their trucking services to a company in Texas, the state where she grew up and apparently claimed she'd never return to again. After leaving a phone message for her estranged dad Ed (SAM SHEPARD) and getting together with her local friend Michelle (KATE BEAHAN), Joanna finds herself drawn to the town of La Salle.

Suffering from nightmarish visions since her childhood of what appears to be a murder, the perpetrator, and his victim, she feels an innate need to solve this mystery. Yet, Kurt has followed her there as well, and she needs the help of a local man, Terry Stahl (PETER O'BRIEN), to save her from him. Following the murder of his wife Annie (ERINN ALLISON) years ago, Terry's been labeled as the unwelcome outcast, and he isn't particularly pleased when Joanna later sneaks into his place -- having been unconsciously drawn there -- and starts snooping around.

From that point on, and with her visions continuing, Joanna keeps trying to discover the source of them, a quest that may just put her life in danger.

OUR TAKE: 1 out of 10
Although she's appeared in other genre films, actress Sarah Michelle Gellar is apparently still trying to be her generation's Jamie Lee Curtis (the actress who made her first big splash in "Halloween" and then followed that up starring in a number of mostly forgettable slasher flicks).

Gellar, best known as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (at least in the TV version, Kristy Swanson inaugurated the character on the big screen), has also appeared in various installments of the "Grudge," "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer" flicks (we're not counting the "Scooby Doo" films, since that's a different genre, although they were horrific in their own right).

Apparently unable to turn down the genre's beckoning, she now appears in "The Return," a supernaturally tinged thriller about ghostly visions, self-inflicted wounds, and many pensive looks. Regardless of how the trailer folks might have otherwise been able to make the film's previews appear, this is arguably one of the most boring entries of its genre, certainly of this year, and possibly of all time.

The releasing studio must have thought the same, as they declined to share their cinematic gift with reviewers before it opened (where the only fear would likely be the possibility of snoring drowning out the film's lame dialogue. Here's a sample exchange. Terry: "Why are you doing this? Who are you?" Joanna: "I don't know." Terry: "Get out! Get on!").

While such conversation is obviously deadly (in a blunt way, rather than from having sharply honed wording as usually desired), it's the story, and the telling of that, where the film ultimately and horribly fails. Here's the quick lowdown. Gellar plays a sales associate for a trucking company (for absolutely no reason, and it does nothing for the film beyond making her a constant business wanderer), who's been suffering from nightmarish visions ever since a car accident at the age of 11.

That's left her inclined to hide under things (a table at a carnival, a wooden platform in a barn, and any nearby bed) when not starring at herself in the mirror (obviously questioning whether she has any dignity left -- oh, sorry, the "Doo" films took care of any last traces of that).

Anyway, she volunteers to travel on down to the Lone Star State where she grew up, but apparently has vowed never to return to (or so her boss reminds her). That's not because she has some sort of Dixie Chick grudge (although that would make for an interesting horror flick), but due to, well, we're never told exactly why.

It must have something to do with those visions, but once she's back down there, she's drawn to solve the mystery behind her troubles. Unfortunately, that's not really done in the proactive, Colombo vein, but rather the "I'm in a trance so I'll just walk over here" way. I guess you could argue it's women's intuition, to know where to go (although that obviously didn't serve Gellar that well when she signed on).

Rather than the usual array of red herrings found in a supernatural thriller (present to keep viewers on their toes), however, she immediately comes across a direct connection to what ails her, an outcast townie played by Peter O'Brien (apparently trying to channel Viggo Mortensen as if watching him on a small TV through the curtains from across the street).

He has some past trauma (repeatedly viewed in those flashbacks where the camera operator and editor must have been drinking since none of the footage is steady or coherent), and by gosh Buffy's going to get to the bottom of it if she has to drive a stake through it (or just let it reveal itself on its own, whichever is easier).

The result is an unbelievably trying bore-fest where pensive and/or constipated looks rule, and slow wandering is only occasionally interrupted by bursts of poorly conceived and executed action sequences. Even the requisite jump scenes are mundane, with sudden loud music standing in for any sort of imaginative attempts to startle viewers from their progressive trip toward slumber.

The mystery of what's haunting Joanna is supposed to propel the story forward, but it's dramatically inert from square one, and the fact that we don't care about Gellar's character means there's no tension or worrying about what she might discover or encounter.

What we're left with is a rather lame ghost story where the oft-repeated clues (bits of repeated dialogue, the Patsy Cline song "Sweet Dreams," etc.) are eventually connected to the pivotal past event, but by then anyone left awake won't care.

Let's just hope the powers that be have the same reaction so that we're not unmercifully subjected to something along the lines of "The Return of the Return." About on par with what otherwise should have been a straight to video release, this first and hopefully installment rates as a 1 out of 10.

Reviewed November 10, 2006 / Posted November 10, 2006

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