"Return in Red", as made evident early on in the film, is "a little-known military test classification for 'serious' or 'fatal' experiment results". Though the core threat is a little bizarre, most of the menacing tension within this film leans upon the normality of a small Indiana town. Strangely enough, the normalcy of this situation serves as both the effective adrenaline boost and as the tedious barrier from enjoyment within Return in Red. Sadly, that barrier is much too strong and keeps the adrenaline firmly at bay up until the compensatory resolution.
Return in Red captures the dull, quaint atmosphere of a backwater factory town quite appropriately. No other real civilization seems to be within reach for miles. A classic arrangement of characters crop up amidst the town's dusty horizon, from the kind jack-of-all-trades Bodecker (J.J. Huckin) who travels around town helping the citizens for meager compensation, to the lost waitress / factory worker Katie (Amy Paliganoff) who ponders life outside of the wide open confines of her rural existence. Aside from eating at a popular closing restaurant and picking up tall cups of coffee from the gas station, the drive along these grassy roads from home to work covers just about all the excitement these citizens get to see.
When a pale white van adorned with strange antennas and assorted suspicious equipment starts jetting across the peaceful roads, the citizens start to take peculiar notice. As this van travels around the town making inconspicuous marks here and there, television reception starts to fizzle while a large humming sounds rumble through the air. Curiously, numerous citizens of the area start to feel ill with fluctuating symptoms ranging from nausea and dizziness to acute depression. All this seems to be rooted in the presence of this conspicuous van. As this factory town was about to find out, sickness and sadness would only be the surface of the damage about to strike.
Return in Red operates like a stick of dynamite with an eighty foot fuse. With a fiery opening quote, an engaging spark is lit that's destined to travel towards an explosive finale. After that spark, however, the character build-up and bubbling tension travels at an extremely leisurely pace. This drawn out and arduous crawl succeeds, both intentionally and inadvertantly, in displaying the assumed tedium and disposability of the town. It's so successful that it can induce a smidge of heavy-eyed syndrome with its realism. There's a fine line between keeping a film enjoyable and achieving realism; Return in Red flounders over that line quite a bit. However, amidst the quiet town's comfort level quickly fading, this film does create the feeling of being one of these citizens suffering from the van's enigmatic influence.
What's interesting is that this sluggishness works as a two-edged sword in favor of Return in Red's tone. Quaint, interwoven relationships crackling at the seams from a "realistic" scenario with this boring town are the stuff that makes this flick a mild success. However, this time span still needed to be a bit tighter. It's also not a fault in any way from the performances; for the majority, each character is well portrayed, if a bit embellished. Bodecker's subtle, goofy charm keeps a consistently enjoyable rhythm alongside his sleepy nightshift pal, Finnelli. All of the supporting work manages to scrape together the sparse, dull persona of this small town quite nicely.
Luckily, this fuse does travel with sparks flying to a thunderous conclusion that almost forgives the deliberate, slow narrative. Until these winding conclusive moments, Return in Red was quite experimentally void of any label. Heck, it'd be hard pressed to call the film anything but dramatic documentary material until the real tremors start. However, with the crack of a door and the scream of a child, Return in Red comes back and delivers a sharp slap in the face as a wake-up signal. As conclusions go, Return in Red's factory scene is shrouded in brutality that's quite disturbing to behold.
Is the trek through town worth this film's dynamite finale? Marginally. Return in Red transcends into an unnervingly disturbing film that makes the destination after a long haul marginally justifiable. It's effective and gut-wrenching in that realistically creepy fashion that'll leave a blank look on a face or two.
Return in Red is presented from Image Entertainment in a standard keepcase with uniquely designed artwork. The disc art matched the same color theme and design as the cover.
Shot in 16mm for a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Return in Red isn't a visual feast. However, some of the camerawork achieved in this film is compelling enough to cloud this fact. This transfer definitely reflects the source material. Detail wasn't terribly strong, grain was quite apparent, and the color scheme was fairly washed out. Even amidst these unavoidable problems, Return in Red didn't suffer a bit. The camerawork and cinematography presented still looked fine and made the visual presentation work.
An equally mediocre Dolby Stereo presentation is included. Dialogue didn't seem to suffer to a terrible degree. This is an extremely quiet film; the sound of rustling grass and disheveled gravel underneath tires serve ample role in the presentation. All of these points sounded fine. What sounded quite nice were the rumbling effects from the van's intense weapon. The intensity was enough to cause this reviewer a bit of mild nausea and dizziness.
Return in Red comes loaded with an ample set of bonus features:
The Making of Featurette is an extremely hardcore, on-the-set presentation on how Tyler Tharpe and gang whipped together this unnerving little film. Many of the key scenes are showcased, equipped with exactly how each portion is crafted. The very low-budget thrill ride had some fun stumbling blocks, such as difficulties operating heavy machinery and allotted shooting tape running low. It's great to see all the tumultuous, albeit fun, trials and tribulations the crew had to endure.
An array of Deleted Scenes are included. As stated, the film runs a bit long in the first place. Director Tharpe made a few cuts in the film to help pacing that were very, very wise decisions.
The Audition Reel is a fun little assortment of clips of the cast's pre-film performances. Mostly footage of Finneli and Bodecker's audition that consisted of nearly two or three full scenes from the film, it's an enjoyable watch.
A Stills Gallery is included that shows assorted behind the scenes elements that were covered fairly well in the Making of Featurette. One fun collection, however, is the Screams gallery that shows many of the characters in the middle of yelling out at random times.
Also included on the DVD-ROM portion of the disc are a few segments from MicroFilm newsletter/magazine highlighting some of the unique eccentricities in Return in Red.
For fans of this film (and for the genre of films), this array of supplemental materials provides a terrific after-film experience that can make just about anyone appreciate the struggles of low-budget flicks.
Return in Red doesn't maintain absolute engagement all the way through the nearly two-hour runtime. About twenty minutes longer than needed, this film desperately needs to be a bit leaner around the center, as the conclusion sludged its way into focus quite slowly. The climax, however, potently delivers a shot to the stomach as a direct result of such an intimate connection with the town. And, boy, the ending is quite an interesting sight to see. Amidst its flaws and fine points, Retunr in Red comes with an easy recommendation for a Rental. Sit back and prepare for a slow ride towards an explosion with this one.