Alejandro Amenábar’s psychological horror film Regression—Amenábar is also the director behind subtle chiller The Others—has as an October release, bringing with it all of the elements of cheap Hallowe’en decorations. It is a hackneyed and over-the-top reproduction of horror traditions more likely to provoke ironic laughter than cold-sweat frights.
Amenábar’s film stars Ethan Hawke as Detective Bruce Kenner, who is assigned to the case of John Gray—a father who admits guilt of the sexual abuse that his daughter Angela (Emma Watson) has accused him of, despite having no memory of it. The police enlist the help of a psychologist, Professor Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis) and his regression therapy, to access repressed memories of the family’s supposedly depraved past. They uncover information that threatens to make the case much bigger than anyone thought; a cult conspiracy of unspeakable, even supernatural, evil.
Set in Pennsylvania in the 1990s and based on the real-life rumoured cases of devil-worship in the United States, Regression has a faint whiff of True Detective, season one. It is, however, decidedly without the complex characters, profound dialogue, exciting plot and macabre beauty of the TV show. Instead, we are given a groan-inducing film, full of one-dimensional characters and dialogue cobbled-together from crime thriller clichés in some desperate attempt to deliver a noire sensibility that True Detective did so well.
There is the brooding, loner detective who gets too caught up in the case, and a dubious, small-town police force. Hawke is definitely no Rust Cole. He is more of a hapless buffoon than a hard-headed anti-hero, and the twists and turns of this ‘mystery’ can be seen from a mile away, even when they go back on themselves to try to be clever. The main problem with the plot is that it treats a few sessions with Professor Raines and his metronome-hypnosis as factual testimony, basing the ‘truth’ of the investigation on highly unreliable subconscious evidence.
Regression’s stereotypical sound-effects and scary moments—inserted for mere shock value —make up a plot so amateurish that it is hard to care about the outcome. We are presented with, at best, caricatured tropes of iconic horror films like Rosemary’s Baby. Ghoulish nightmare sequences and an over-arching (and rather simplistic) conflict between science and superstition; such features we have seen umpteen times before and seen done far more effectively.
Indeed, we are given a rather naïve and paint-by-numbers approach to the topic of devil worship, with cloaked figures, cats and baby-sacrifices galore. On the one hand, these features can be seen as a clever, even deliberately-contrived take on the Chinese-whispers of satanic cults in this period—stories that were apparently never proved. Ultimately, however, they seem to be mere cheap thrills within an unimaginative script.
Watson’s over-acting can also be considered as either a hammy display or a conscious creative decision to maintain an ambiguous audience response to Angela and her horrific accusations. Either way, as a feminist icon of our generation, she made a poor decision to be involved in this substandard project.
As did man-of-the-moment Thewlis (Legend, Macbeth), who is almost laughably type-cast as Professor Raines, retaining his English accent purely to give the ‘science’ a glimmer of old-school academic plausibility. He essentially reprises his role as Professor Lupin (complete with cardigan) from the Harry Potter films; fans will note that there is even a similar scene in The Prisoner of Azkaban, in which he teaches Harry to conjure the ‘Patronus Charm’ using the power of his memories.
The ending of Amenábar’s film has the potential to be an interesting comment on the power of suggestion and the collective hysteria surrounding satanic rituals in the 1980s and ’90s. This just about gives the film’s daft moments some self-reflexive legitimacy. Unfortunately, the clichés and poor acting are so unwatchable that it is hard to take anything seriously, and despite its promising cast and attempted socio-historical critique, Regression is a massive disappointment. It is, however, one to add to the list for a bad horror movie night.