Dir/scr, Alejandro Amenabar. Spain-Canada. 2015. 106 mins.


As reasonably well-informed people who know about the media’s role in whipping up waves of collective hysteria, or the dangers of suggestive questioning, witness coaching and regression therapy, whereby victims who claim abuse are often unwittingly encouraged to ‘recover’ false memories, we keep waiting for the twist in Alejandro Amenabar’s new English-language drama thriller based on the Satanic ritual abuse scare that swept America in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the twist, it gradually dawns on us, is that we are supposed to be ignorant of such things – and blind to the way Regression’s script so insistently flags them.

Some of this loud horror material looks frankly absurd

What remains, without the finely managed tensions and surprises that made a film like The Others so potent, is a rather plodding horror-laced tale about a cop in small-town USA who briefly gets carried away by his imagination when confronted by a pretty teenage girl whose story of sexual abuse at the hands of her father soon escalates into revelations of satanic rituals and baby sacrifice. Ethan Hawke does his best in the role of the arrogant, know-it-all provincial detective, while Emma Watson emotes efficiently as the 17-year-old abuse victim; but neither can hide the cracks in a story that seems the work of a lesser writer-director paying awkward homage to the themes of false memories that fascinated the younger Amenabar, most memorably in Open Your Eyes. Opening the San Sebastian film festival, Regression is unlikely to set the international box office alight despite the cachet of its two leads.

Set in the fictional town of Hoyer, Minnesota, in 1990, Regression begins with an explanatory scene-setting caption about the wave of panic which was spreading through the US at this time, centring on reports of satanic rituals. In case this poorly worded spoiler hadn’t already alerted us to the implications, background radio and TV reports about satanic abuse keep the subtext high in the mix in the fast-cut first act, where we learn that 17-year-old Angela Gray (Watson) has taken refuge in a church presided over by creepy evangelist Reverend Beaumont (Bluteau).

Pushy detective Bruce Kenner (Hawke) is assigned to the case, soon extracting a confession from Angela’s self-hating, God-fearing father John (a fine performance by David Dencik) that he sexually abused his daughter. Seeing “something much bigger” in a case far meatier than most of the routine provincial police work he gets to deal with, Kenner convinces his impressionable boss to call in Professor Raines (Thewlis), a psychologist who specialises in extracting buried traumatic memories via hypnotic regression therapy.

Character, rather than story, is Regression’s strong suit, especially in the mismatched buddy act between Kenner and Raines – the first keen to impress as the sharpest tool in the local police department’s rusty toolshed, the latter a guarded British academic whose authority is mostly bluff and bluster, and who fancies himself as a detective.

But Amenabar wants to have his cake and eat it here: at the same time that he trusts our intelligence in seeing the flaws in these two compromised investigators, or the manipulative neediness that lurks behind Angela’s tearful victim act, he would also quite like us to buy into the film’s increasingly lurid attempts to shock and awe with upturned crosses, a barn with a banging door, a scary witch-like grandmother, hooded white-faced satanists and the rather desperate multiple deployment of that old “it was all a dream” trope.

If some of this loud horror material looks frankly absurd, that’s only, Amenabar would no doubt argue, because it reflects the hackneyed, trick-or-treats way in which we give form and body to our night fears. Fine, but for a thriller to thrill, such didactic admonishments are not enough. There’s no faulting Daniel Aranyo’s tenebrous widescreen photography and use of shallow focus as a metaphor for delusion, or Roque Banos’ edgy suspense soundtrack, but neither addresses the film’s central dilemma: that in trying to combine the perceptiveness of a drama about mass hysteria and poor police work with the jump-in-your-seat frisson of a thriller, Regression is killed in the crossfire.

Production companies: MOD Entertainment, MOD Producciones, Himenóptero, First Generation Films, TELEFÓNICA Studios and Regression A.I.E.

International sales: FilmNation Entertainment nyoffice@filmnation.com

Producers: Fernando Bovaira, Alejandro Amenábar, Christina Piovesan

Executive producers: Simón de Santiago, Alex Lalonde, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Ghislain Barrois, Axel Kuschevatzky, Noah Segal

Cinematography: Daniel Aranyó

Editor: Carolina Martinez Urbina, Geoff Ashenhurst

Production designer: Carol Spier

Music: Roque Banos

Main cast: Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Thewlis, Lothaire Bluteau, Dale Dickey, David Dencik, Peter MacNeill Devon Bostick, Aaron Ashmore