Though they haven’t retained the pop-culture cachet of vampires or zombies, hypnotists were once considerably more ubiquitous in scary movies. They frequently emerged as the masterminds behind much mayhem from the original “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” through various murder mysteries and noirs — even Cold War brainwashing thriller “The Manchurian Candidate” — often providing a “logical” solution to events hitherto suspected as supernatural. Never mind that this explanation itself often required a whopping suspension of disbelief.
Ergo Netflix’s new “Hypnotic” feels like a throwback to an era when smirking smoothies in magicians’ turbans or tuxedos planted ideas in unwary subjects’ minds, inevitably leading to the subsequent terror of ingenues in negligees. Here the solicitous bad guy is a psychotherapist played by Jason O’Mara, and the damsel he distresses in the guise of helpfulness is Kate Siegel. Slickly if impersonally directed by Susanne Coote and Matt Angel, this Vancouver-shot suspense tale is entertaining enough to meet undiscriminating viewers’ needs on a slow night. But it does not escape a gimmicky, formulaic feel, and indeed Richard D’Ovidio’s screenplay only grows more unconvincingly contrived as the crises ratchet up.
Software programmer Jenn Thompson (Seigel) has been “isolating and unemployed,” as best friend Gina (Lucie Guest) put it, since a miscarriage traumatized her enough to end a relationship with longtime beau Brian (Jaime M. Callica). Gina insists she see Dr. Collin Meade (O’Mara), who’d helped her with some lesser personal issues. When he proposes using hypnotherapy, she protests, “I’m just not a giving-away-control person.” He counters with the assurance that “Only you can control your subconscious” — the first of many great big fibs, as he intends precisely to control hers, for his own nefarious purposes.
At first, his treatments appear entirely beneficial, boosting her confidence, alleviating depression and anxiety. But upon receiving an unidentified call one day, she “loses” several hours’ time — snapping to alertness only to discover something dire has happened to a loved one. Suspicious, she does a background check on the good doc, learning that there is on one hand a weird paucity of intel about his past, and on the other a recent trail of deceased patients. She consults the police detective (Dule Hill as Wade Rollins) who’d previously investigated the shrink, without being available to gather enough evidence for a criminal case, and confides her worries to Gina. But it soon turns out Dr. Meade is not so easily thwarted. Nor is he hesitant about using hypnotic suggestion to eliminate anyone who gets in the way of his ultimate goal.
The script usefully incorporates some insights into predatory “grooming,” as this therapist tells our heroine things like “You don’t have to be a victim anymore,” manipulating her trust in order to secretly violate it. But such elements aren’t developed with any great ingenuity as the plot eventually turns toward a familiar mix of captivity peril, mano-a-mano fighting and “I think I can I think I can” resistance of hypnotic commands. Some late hints are dropped tying this stuff to 1960s CIA mind-control experiments. But “Hypnotic” is more rooted in the kind of older-school melodrama in which Bela Lugosi might mesmerize an heiress into abandoning her upright fiancé for his swami-conman self.
Not that O’Mara indulges in any retro flamboyance of evil. He underplays his character to good effect, though the screenplay provides few rewards in the way of psychological depth. Siegel, a horror-fan draw from roles for director-spouse Mike Flanagan, as well as the series “Haunting of Hill House” and “Midnight Mass,” also does a solid job working some nuance into a routinely conceived part. The supporting cast (also including Luc Roderique as Gina’s husband and Tanya Dixon-Warren as an ethical therapist) likewise bring as much naturalistic conviction as the material allows.
“Hypnotic” is a sideways move for the two directors, whose prior Netflix thriller “The Open House” in 2018 made a lot of viewers mad (it’s currently No. 54 on the Internet Movie Database’s “Bottom 100” list of worst-rated films) by ending sans any explanation whatsoever, not even the identity or motivation of its killer. Still, that jump-scare-laden, rather sadistic home invasion tale was creepier than this enterprise, in which every plot thread gets tied up neatly, albeit without much in the way of atmospherics or plausibility.
The sleek, cold modern locales favored by production designer Roger Fires, capably shot by DP John S. Bartley, heighten the film’s air of polish minus strong personality, let alone panache. You may quit “Hypnotic” with more recall than a hypnotic trance would have allowed, but this hour and a half also seems destined to erase itself from memory.