Return to Sender

By Russell Goldman | Horror
A woman is the target of a delivery scam -- that gets stranger and more personal.

Julia has just moved into a new home, rebuilding her life after getting sober. She embarks on the process of putting her home together, ordering new furnishings and decor items online. But she also starts getting extra items in her packages, starting with a wine bottle opener -- an off-putting mistake, considering she's a recovering alcoholic.

But Julia keeps getting extra items delivered, and though she's not charged for them, they grow more bizarre and ominous: a security system, privacy curtains, and then finally, a bulletproof vest. Soon she discovers that someone is leaving reviews using Julia's name. As those, too, become ever more sinister, Julia becomes increasingly paranoid, at one of the most vulnerable times in her life.

Written and directed by Russell Goldman, this short horror/thriller is a disquieting, suspenseful tale built around an increasingly common real-life delivery scam called "brushing," where a random item is sent to a legitimate address by an unsavory party or company. That party then posts a verified review under the addressee's name but via a fake account, all for a review on a site where ratings matter. Though there's no money stolen, a person's identity is hijacked.

The narrative takes this contemporary problem and weaves it into a first-class thriller, with brilliantly executed writing and directing meticulously charting an unseen menace. The film begins with a simple scene of Julia attending an online AA meeting, seeming to set up a drama of a woman's journey through recovery and sobriety. But there's something in the downcast, moody cinematography and the almost voyeuristic framing that suggests something off-kilter in Julia's new life.

As Julia places online orders to set up her new home, each package adds to this sense of unsettling mystery, and soon it becomes apparent that these delivery mistakes aren't mistakes at all. Through it all, actor Allison Tollman -- who many will recognize from her Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated role in the TV series Fargo -- anchors the film with a remarkably layered, sympathetic performance. She begins the film with a fragile but firm sense of resolution to rebuild her life and deftly evokes the uncertainty and doubt that comes from starting over. But as the packages arrive, with each delivery becoming aggressively insinuating, she is cornered into a growing depression and paranoia -- one that brings her to the edge.

There are no bodily monsters in "Return to Sender," but the film -- produced by actor and horror icon Jamie Lee Curtis -- still speaks to our anxieties and fears in a way that only horror films can. There are no vampires, werewolves or zombies; here, the monster in the dark is the manipulation made possible by the embrace of technology in every nook and cranny of our lives, from the video calls and Facetime we use to keep in touch to the huge companies that collect our data with each interaction and purchase. What's truly scary in "Return to Sender" is how utterly ordinary and relatable it is, in a world where the Amazon Prime delivery van is a typical neighborhood presence. Its fresh, compelling premise -- one that could easily expand into a feature or series -- is not at all removed from everyday life, but it's weaponized by the storytelling in a way that is frighteningly easy to imagine for ourselves.

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