Switching gears after more benign fare like “Photographing Fairies” and his Hallmark/NBC “Alice in Wonderland,” Brit director Nick Willing moves into decidedly darker territory while maintaining his fascination for the fantastic realm in “Hypnotic,” an enjoyable throwback to the occult psychological horror-thrillers of the late 1970s. While it flirts often with campy excess, the film remains compelling thanks to its chilly mood, stylish visuals and polished production values. Slated for U.S. release in April via First Look, it should scare up modest theatrical returns before proving more mesmerizing in home entertainment formats.
Adapted by Willing and William Brookfield from American author Madison Smartt Bell’s novel “Doctor Sleep” — and still bearing that title on the print screened at the Hamptons fest — “Hypnotic” centers on Dr. Michael Strother (Goran Visnjic), a hypnotherapist who has relocated with his family from Seattle to London in order to put a professional slip-up behind him.
While treating Detective Janet Losey (Shirley Henderson) for her smoking habit, Strother has a telepathic flash of a young girl who escaped from a serial killer. When he reveals this to the cop, Losey sees a possible avenue for progress in her stalled investigation of the infant killings known as the Tattoo Murders.
She strong-arms the reluctant doctor into hypnotizing the traumatized girl, Heather (Sophie Stuckey), to make her revisit her memories. Despite warnings from his pregnant wife (Miranda Otto) to stay clear, Strother is drawn deeper into the case, teaming with Losey, whose unorthodox approach chafes against her superiors.
The zodiac markings on Heather’s arms and the unintelligible incantations she babbles lead Losey and the doc to occult expert Elliot (Paddy Considine). Before falling foul of the killer and a hungry rat, Elliot in turn steers the investigators to retired scholar Catherine Lebourg (Fiona Shaw). She confirms a link to a 16th century religious fanatic, and to one of his later followers, who built a series of churches around London.
The climactic stretch perhaps tosses a few too many ingredients into the stew, becoming somewhat arch and silly in its elaboration of a plot to steal souls and cheat death through macabre and arcane alchemical procedures. But while youth audiences weaned on the self-aware humor and action overload of contemporary pop-horror may find “Hypnotic” a little retro, the thriller has plenty of creepy atmosphere and original kinks in its favor.
Most effectively, it defies genre expectations by making the doctor — not female protagonist Losey — the more vulnerable figure.
Croatian “ER” star Visnjic capably embodies the feeling of entrapment of a sensitive man juggling noble instincts with fear of his own extrasensory gifts and guilt over a past episode with a patient. Cast against type, Henderson gives Losey pluck and determination to counter the working-class loner’s physically unprepossessing appearance. Shaw adds a theatrical grande dame edge to her role as the frail, enigmatic professor and Considine contributes an intriguingly oddball character in well-meaning misfit Elliot. Aussie thesp Otto is stuck with an uninterestingly developed role.
Lenser Peter Sova and production designer Don Taylor seek out the dark, grimy corners beneath the modern surface of London, shot in slightly drained colors that contrast sharply with the over-saturated look of the visions and memory flashes. Willing deftly uses back-projection and other anachronistic visual devices to reinforce the stylistic lineage from vintage British thrillers, an aspect further underlined by Simon Boswell’s tense Hitchcockian score.