Return in Red is, by nearly any metric, a bad movie. Bad. Director Tyler Tharpe is inordinately pleased with the simple act of moving the camera on a dolly without any regard for why or whether he should do it, much less how to cut around it. The lighting is alternately soupy, harsh, or tacky. It has no meaningful production values, shot mostly in people’s houses in Indiana. A barn set up with a couple of power tools stands in for a factory. The best thing you can say about the actors is that they’re occasionally relaxed. There is scarcely a frame of Retun in Red that doesn’t announce itself as an amateur production.
That said, I really liked Return in Red. It’s a textbook example of tension, suspense, and fear without resorting to the usual tropes. It has a canny sense for quiet menace. The opening narration is right out of the 70s, consisting of a simple quote about a program to study the effects of sound waves as a weapon. From here, we’re introduced to a small rural community, stalked by a strange white van with what looks like a satellite dish sticking out the side. Return in Red belongs in the tradition of The Crazies, or a far better version of The Crazies called Impulse, or an Alan Rudolph movie called Endangered Species, in which Dan Ulrich, JoBeth Willams, and Paul Dooley investigate UFO cattle mutilations.
And even though it’s bad, the amateurish quality gives it that raw grimy feel of 70s horror movies, especially when it starts to roll out the special effects. Like George Romero, Wes Craven, and Tobe Hooper before him, Tharpe is states and states away from from Hollywood, hundreds of miles from any movie studio, surrounded by and therefore working with actual people. As such, he has to come up with his own tricks. His desperate no-budget affection shows in every bleak and poorly lit frame he shoots. He’s like Mark Borchardt, but with a sense for subtlty.
I’m tempted to say Return in Red should have been a half hour shorter, maybe because I actually fell asleep a couple of times while watching it. Which isn’t the movie’s fault. My hours were messed up because of a time zone shift. In fact, my falling asleep complemented the occasionally hazy narrative. But ultimately, I don’t think you could trim anything from this slow and sometimes wet burn. The time it takes to breathe and meander makes the weird finale more effective. It gives the fate of the characters more weight, especially since they don’t seem like characters so much as people persuaded by Tharpe to wander into the frame from time to time.
But again, let me remind you that Return in Red is bad. I know that. I warned you right off the bat. But sometimes there’s more to a movie than being good or bad. Return in Red, available on Netflix’s instant watch, is one such movie.