★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Is it a ghost story? A time travel story? The Return is a bit of both: a tightly scripted science fiction experiment in a haunted house package. This award-winning production is part of the terrific slate of features at the 2020 Another Hole in the Head Film Festival.
Directed by B.J. Verot
(This review was originally done for the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival)
In 2018’s H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, B.J. Verot showed a promising polar Cosmic Horror short “Echoes in the Ice” which, for a horror short, displayed impressive production values and solid acting, foreshadowing the promise of what he could do in a feature film. Not bad for a man who broke into the industry as a stuntman for films like Wrong Turn 4, Trench 11, and Incident in a Ghost Land.
Two years later, he has returned with what on the surface appeared to be a conventional haunted house tale, but he managed to pack in a whip-smart plot with surprises and clever revelations. He has invested his characters with texture and depth, and the acting executes their roles with terrific nuance. For a first feature production, Verot has crafted a Swiss watch of a plot, which is necessary for any time travel feature and grafts it with sufficient dread for a good ghost story.
Richard Harmon plays Rodger Emmerlich, a brilliant young physics student, returning to claim the inheritance of a big Victorian home, where his father perished under mysterious circumstances. With him is his girlfriend Beth (Sara Thompson) and his best friend Jordan (Echo Andersson). Rodger’s parents were both scientists, and his mother was a brilliant physicist who was obsessed with time travel, and though Rodger inherited their brilliance he
It doesn’t take long before a ghostly apparition begins sneaking up on Rodger, Beth, and Jordan but does the classic ghostly disappearing act just as suspicion is aroused. The trio try to determine the mysteries of the house. The script carefully sets up the components of the mystery in inventive ways. Clues left behind by Rodger’s mother (Gwendolyn Collins) are in the form of complex equations left behind on a white board. His father left behind some video evidence of apparitions, and a folder about psychiatrist sessions for Rodger that he doesn’t remember.
All of these elements are well set up and pay off nicely. The relationships between Rodger, Beth, and Jordan are also deftly handled. Initially, the snarky Jordan comes off abrasive, but you begin to see the depth of the relationship between Rodger and Jordan, making Beth jealous. This is handled much more sympathetically than most horror movies do, and credit to Verot for not going the easy route with this love triangle.
As our protagonists begin to unravel what happened to Rodger’s family, the apparition gets more aggressive. In response, Rodger’s brilliance, and a helping hand from the white board, Rodger finds a way to go full cosmic ghostbuster, and attempts to re-write some dreadful wrongdoings.
This is a very promising outing from BJ Verot, who not only directed this film, but wrote it and produced it. The look of the production would suggest a larger studio effort, and Verot’s sharp camera eye that he proved with Echoes in the Ice are once again is on display. One of the subtle cinematic tricks Verot employed was to change the aspect ratio when doing flashbacks, as well as employing a little bit of a herky-jerky tilt-shift visual trick to suggest the fallibility of memory.
There are a couple of unresolved elements in the movie that I would have liked to have been addressed. The fate of both Amelia and the sinister flayed Imaginary “friend” are not brought to any sort of conclusion. There is a mention of a key relationship moment (a treehouse) between Jordan and Rodger that seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. Care to clarify, Mr. Verot?
I was pleased with the appropriately cosmic-space-time trippy conclusion. It was a bittersweet denouement that was both satisfying and open ended. I would love to know what the consequences of the climactic decision were. How much changed? What becomes of our protagonists? It leaves you wanting more from these characters, but their fates are in doubt.
The Return is not rated, but it would likely get an R rating for sexual situations, some F-bombs, and some violence. This is not a gory movie, and a decent comp would be The Conjuring for both content and feel. This film does not yet have a major distributor or a wide release date. It won the best feature award for the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, so that bodes well for it getting a distributor. But why wait? This feature will be showing at the 2020 streaming Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, with tickets available now!