“Regression” is a risky choice of title from a director whose most recent work has fallen short of past glories, setting up all-too-obvious critical punchlines in the event of further decline. So it’s disheartening that Alejandro Amenabar’s sixth feature — and his first since 2009’s nobly overreaching folly “Agora” — is his least characterful and least ambitious to date. Returning the Spanish helmer to the shadowy psychothriller territory of his earlier work, this allegedly fact-based tale of Satanic suspicions in small-town Minnesota is potboiler material at best, threatening far twistier terrors than those it predictably delivers. Though performed with some perspiring conviction by Emma Watson and Ethan Hawke — as a confessed victim of cult abuse and the agnostic cop investigating her case — the pic is neither disquieting enough to take seriously, nor lurid enough for fright-night indulgence. “Regression” may rep a commercial advance on Amenabar’s difficult last outing, but the devil will mostly get his due in ancillary.
For Hawke, the film follows the lead of “Sinister” and “The Purge” in realising the suitability of his antsy screen presence for horror-tinged fare; for Watson, it’s a relatively undistinguished first dip into adult genre filmmaking, albeit one that effectively plays on (and off) her pinched onscreen vulnerability. For Amenabar, however, his third English-language feature — a Spanish-Canadian co-production, to be distributed Stateside by Radius-TWC — marks a pretty pale return of the dark side he put on hold for the tony historical drama “Agora” and 2003’s Oscar-winning issue biopic “The Sea Inside.” It may return to the theme of raddled reality that bound “Thesis,” “Open Your Eyes” and his modern-classic ghost story “The Others,” but to considerably less stimulating effect: Alert viewers are offered too many clues upfront to be fully taken in by its blurring of conscious and unconscious perspective.
The title refers to a still-controversial branch of psychotherapy, one that uses hypnosis to make patients relive crucial past experiences, uncovering the repressed roots of trauma in the process. Debate arose in the 1990s, in particular, around the procedure’s potential to fabricate memories rather than recall them. Duly set in 1990 — thus sparing Hawke’s intuitive detective, Bruce Kenner, the rigors of online research — “Regression” pits a range of characters’ memories against each other using this uncanny point of uncertainty, as police try to determine just who ritualistically raped and scarred virginal 17-year-old Angela Gray (Watson). Separated from her family, she instead seeks shelter in the church overseen by Lothaire Bluteau’s strict, solemn reverend.
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The film opens with a confession from her disheveled mechanic dad John (David Dencik), though he also admits to having no personal recollection of the crime. A foggy, sonically numb flash of first-person perspective as he enters the station is enough to pre-empt tough-minded Kenner’s lack of faith in John’s memory. Enter Dr. Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis, not without panache as he takes the money and mumbles), an expert British psychoanalyst somehow in less demand outside Minnesota, to practice regression therapy on father and daughter alike. As their respective memories expand, a host of other parties are placed under scrutiny, including Kenner’s young colleague Nesbitt (Aaron Ashmore) and Angela’s reclusive grandmother Rose (Dale Dickey, going all in on crazy-cat-lady disarray).
As evidence begins pointing to the existence of a widespread Satanic collective in town, performing horrific human sacrifices at black-mass gatherings, Kenner’s own stance shifts from guarded skepticism to peaky paranoia. If the narrative’s measured rhythm (and, admittedly, the director’s past form) lead viewers to expect an axis-shifting revelation or reversal, one isn’t quite forthcoming, while one key whodunnit detail is openly revealed at least half an act too early. As the tension over the awful truth slackens, Amenabar at least lands a few simple, heart-quickening scares from his kitsch B-movie imagery alone, from ominously yowling tomcats to black-hooded devil worshippers in full Mephisto makeup — all lit in appropriately uninviting blue-steel fashion by d.p. Daniel Aranyo.
Amenabar knows the enduring value of vivid genre cliché, so it’s especially disappointing that his latest doesn’t ramp up the grotesque, fever-dream atmosphere that might forge something sublime from silliness — or, more attainably, yield a mumbo-jumbo trash treasure to be filed alongside “Bless the Child” and “Case 39.” Yet “Regression” — also written by the director, though seemingly styled with the synthetic sizzle of a director-for-hire — takes its fact-inspired credentials to heart, bracketing proceedings with earnest title cards that profess the grave frequency of such cases in America. That hardly alleviates the pic’s more preposterous plotting (particularly with regard to Kenner’s rogue policing methods), but a cautious allegiance to notional reality remains. The ensemble is similarly split in their approach to the material: Hawke and Watson play it sternly straight, while certain supporting players (notably, and most enjoyably, Dickey) go brazenly for broke.
Tech contributions paint the film as something of a ’90s period piece in form as well as content: Polished as the whole package is, there’s a scuzzy, VHS-era tinge to Aranyo’s high-contrast lensing, and nary a hint of postmodern horror irony to Roque Banos’ brash, lunging score. Amenabar wields enough control over his craft here to stoke hopes for a more spirited return to genre filmmaking; as it is, “Regression” is likely to remain a largely unretrieved memory.