"Sometimes I think if I keep moving forward, nothing bad can catch me," says Joanna Mills, the itinerant sales rep Sarah Michelle Gellar plays in the would-be creeper "The Return." As in both installments of "The Grudge," Gellar spends much of the movie inching toward, and occasionally running from, an unknown evil from the past, here in the form of disturbing visions that may or may not be flashbacks to a childhood trauma.
Joanna begins to see things when she visits a small Texas town near where she grew up. It's not clear how near, because British director Asif Kapadia ("The Warrior") fails to establish even a rudimentary sense of place, although the blame may fall on screenwriter Adam Sussman, who in the movie's press notes refers to its setting as "the Midwest." (Just try getting that past any red-blooded Texan.)
From Joanna's undefined job to a cavernous hotel whose lobby apparently doubles as a meat-processing facility, "The Return" universally fails to establish any sense of reality, which makes it hard to register when Joanna's world starts falling apart. A smattering of workaday details -- a few used coffee cups and fast-food wrappers in her car -- would have done much to take the edge off the movie's mumbo-jumbo.
A tense meeting between Joanna and her estranged father (Sam Shepard) leaves the impression that her visions may be repressed memories fighting their way to the surface. But then why does she remember places she's never been to and people she's never met? And what could her father mean when he says that, after an unspecified incident at age 11, she became "a completely different person"?
Never mind. It's probably nothing.
By the time Joanna starts seeing visions of another woman in the mirror, it's not hard to figure out where "The Return" is going: a long-unsolved murder, a mysterious stranger (hunky, colorless Peter O'Brien) with a connection to the crime and a series of expanding flashbacks that gradually merge with the present. It's hardly a smooth ride to the finish, because the movie often lurches forward as if pages had been torn from its script at random. But there's never any doubt where it will end.
As for Gellar, she seems game but glum, treading water in a role that represses her comic talents and leaves her little to do but suffer in silence. It's been three years since Buffy Summers hung up her wooden stake, and Gellar seems determined not to play another wisecracking action heroine. But she can't seem to stay away from fighting demons, even if it's only one step at a time.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, terror and disturbing images. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. In general release.