1½ stars (out of four)
One approaches a dinky little thing like ''The Return'' not as a movie but as product, and the question isn't whether it's good but effective. Will it get high school and college girls happily shrieking, and will it allow for socially acceptable date-clutching?
The answer is: almost. Stronger on spooky atmosphere than narrative sense, this PG-13 ghost story starring a near-catatonic Sarah Michelle Gellar stretches its one idea out for a far too long 85 minutes. Gellar plays Joanna Mills, a St. Louis woman drawn to the Texas plains of her childhood by unsettling hallucinations she can't shake, of a threatening man, an eerie woman, and a nagging refrain from a Patsy Cline song. Alternately investigating and cowering in fear, she meets a brooding loner named Terry (Peter O'Brien), whose own past tragedies have something to do with the otherworldly persecutions being visited on Joanna.
''The Return'' aims for a ''Sixth Sense'' mood of dread (punctuated by regular gotcha shots) rather than ladling out the gore, so fans of ''Saw'' won't be happy. The scariest thing here may actually be the brief appearance by Sam Shepard, still paying those college tuition bills, as Joanna's father. Like the landscape itself, there's more empty space in the movie than plot to fill it with, and sometimes even that fails to make sense, such as the unexplained appearance in Texas of a nasty ex-boyfriend (Adam Scott) who by all rights should still be in St. Louis.
As B-level suspensers go, though, ''The Return'' isn't actively awful - just slow and cursed with a lead who acts with her T-shirt. The climactic twist, when it comes, is reasonably satisfying, and there's a neat touch at the very, very end, when the desaturated colors of the modern-day sequences melt gracefully into the full color of the flashbacks. It's the only subtle touch in the movie, and it has no business being here.
Directed by: Asif Kapadia. Written by: Adam Sussman. Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sam Shepard, Peter O'Brien, Adam Scott. Running time: 85 minutes. Rated: PG-13 (violence, terror, disturbing images)