Consider yourself warned: Regression is not a horror movie. Despite the involvement of writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, best known for ghost story The Others, and a marketing campaign that has focused on the Satanic cults and human sacrifices wrapped up in the film’s messy premise, Regression is actually a finger-patronizing parable about the dangers of hypnosis and hysteria – and a largely intolerable one at that.
It all starts out promisingly enough, with committed Minnesota detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) investigating the bizarre case of Angela Gray (Emma Watson), a 17-year-old girl who fled her family for the safety of a nearby church after saying she was ritualistically raped and scarred. It doesn’t take long for her father (David Dencik) to admit to molesting her – not because he remembers doing so, but because he is convinced Angela would never lie.
In an attempt to draw out his repressed memories, Kenner taps a hypnotherapist (David Thewlis), whose sessions with the father reveal a far greater conspiracy, involving a devil-worshipping cult that murders children and eats them. Kenner follows the thread, ultimately finding evidence that Angela’s estranged brother (Devon Bostick) and gnarled grandmother (Dale Dickey) are involved, as is another detective in his precinct (Aaron Ashmore). Increasingly consumed by the case, even Kenner starts experiencing hallucinations (or are they?) of the cult, culminating in his belief he may be their next intended victim.
Anyone who remembers – or has even casually read about – the Satanic panic that swept America a few decades ago in what amounted to a spookier, kookier rehash of the Red Scare will be able to guess where Amenábar is going with all this. What a pity, then, that the director takes so long to get there, emphasizing mood over momentum every step of the way even after his intended story arc becomes painfully obvious.
Given the haunting shadows and air of mystery that the occult-oriented side of Regression possesses, it’s perhaps understandable that Amenábar insists on milking every scene for maximum atmosphere. But in doing so, the director neglects to also iron out his narrative, adding to an overwhelming sense of confusion that his paper-thin characters can’t afford to court.
Kenner is the most bare-bones cop character this reviewer has come across in some time (the one-line extras show a busier interior life), and that lack of dimension hurts the film badly, especially as it charts his mounting paranoia without ever legitimizing it. There’s simply no rationale for why the detective is so easily led, and Hawke’s ample glowering adds nothing particularly special or believable to the character.
Watson, meanwhile, is given unforgivably short shrift. Her character gets relegated to the sidelines too often to leave a real impression, and though the very emotive actress sells Angela’s trauma, she can’t bring depth to a figure who has none on the page. Consequently, a third-act twist involving the character falls so painfully flat that it sinks the movie into a frustrating cesspool of gotcha moments. It’s telling that the biggest and most tantalizing mystery in this whole sorry affair is why Watson would have been attracted to the project, first-draft dialogue and all, in the first place.
As Regression reveals itself to be a consummately dull and alienating thriller, as well as one with pretty awful things to say about women, religion and psychology in general, one also has to wonder what the writer-director was thinking. It’s entirely possible that Amenábar thought he was making both an atmospheric chiller and an artist’s statement on the controversial use of regressive hypnosis and unlocked memories to solve crimes, but the director plainly never considered how to avoid one story brutally undercutting the other (or, to be frankly honest, how to make either story feel worth telling at all). And so Regression fails doubly, never executing a single scare or providing a single interesting insight.
It’s the kind of meritless, uninspired tripe that suggests the hand of a mediocre talent, which Amenábar is most certainly not. This is a director who understands how to build tension and craft compelling characters – but his work here is lazy, and risibly so. Regression may have started out as the helmer’s paean to ’80s detective thrillers, or as a riff on Satanic thrillers like Rosemary’s Baby, but its visual mimicry of both subgenres can’t mask how little his script has to add to them. There’s a great movie to be made about law enforcement officers and psychologists unwittingly tearing families asunder by implanting false memories as they attempted to unearth real ones that had been repressed. But Regression makes grievous errors in terms of how it approaches that subject, to whom it affixes blame for such incidents, and how it unfolds from a purely cinematic perspective.
Regression is not just a bad movie. With its supremely patchy script, misguided direction and agonizingly idiotic – not to mention illogical – conclusion, it barely feels like one at all.
Listless and lazy, Regression is an ugly mess of genre tropes that tries (and fails) to pass itself off as an atmospheric dissection of hypnosis and hysteria.