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D: Alejandro Amenábar / 106m

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

Minnesota, 1990. Farmer John Gray (Dencik) confesses to molesting his seventeen year old daughter, Angela (Watson) – but there’s a catch: even though Angela has made an accusation, Gray can’t remember doing anything of the sort, and is confessing purely because Angela has never lied to him, so in his mind it must be true. Detective Bruce Kenner (Hawke) is assigned to the case, and while Gray languishes in prison awaiting a trial date, he begins to look into the matter. It’s not long though before Kenner begins to find that the case isn’t as straightforward as his boss, Chief Cleveland (O”Neill), would like.

With the help of Professor Kenneth Raines (Thewlis), Kenner learns through Raines’ use of regression therapy techniques that Gray wasn’t alone when his abuse of Angela was supposed to have happened. When the other person present is revealed to be a fellow police officer, George Nesbitt (Ashmore), that revelation opens up another can of worms altogether: that Nesbitt, along with an unwitting Gray, are members of a satanic cult. With the rest of the police force treating the idea of a satanic cult as a joke, and Gray’s family proving resentful of Kenner’s investigation, it’s not until he gets to meet Angela that Kenner begins to believe that there might actually be something in what her father has remembered.

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Kenner remains sceptical but insists on keeping an open mind, and begins looking into the possibility that a cult is operating in the local area. A second meeting with Angela has him believing more and more, and even more so when he begins to have strange dreams, some where he appears to be involved in the blood sacrifice of a newborn baby (and which echoes what Angela has told him of her own experiences). Kenner becomes paranoid, and his relationships with those around him begin to deteriorate. When Nesbitt is released for lack of evidence, Kenner believes he has to risk everything in order to keep Angela safe, but if the cult is for real, will he be able to?

The period setting of Regression is deliberate. In the US in 1980, a book was published called Michelle Remembers, and it was written by Michelle Smith and her future husband Lawrence Pazder (who was then her psychiatrist). In it, Smith recounted – through Pazder’s use of hypnotherapy – alleged memories of what became known as Ritual Satanic Abuse (RSA). These memories related to abuse supposed to have been perpetrated by Michelle’s mother in the mid-Fifties when Michelle was five. The book proved to be a starting point for allegations of widespread satanic activity within the US (and further afield), and although skepticism of Smith and Pazder’s book was equally widespread, as the Eighties progressed, the idea of satanic cults prospered, and the book, and Pazder’s “expertise” on the subject, were used as a guide for prosecutors preparing cases against individuals accused of satanic practices.

Set against the backdrop of this developing fear and paranoia, Regression touches on several attendant topics – the (mis)use of regressive therapy, the impact of such allegations on closed communities, individual feelings of guilt and/or responsibility, the ease with which unsubstantiated rumour becomes accepted fact – but it does so in such an awkward, hamfisted way that any dramatic emphasis is reduced by the way in which Amenábar’s script fails to follow through on these topics. The end result is a movie that has a lot going on but little of it that makes consistent sense.

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Worrying aspects crop up almost from the start, with a very clumsily inserted “clue” that Nesbitt is more involved than is initially apparent, and this is followed by the way in which Detective Kenner commits himself so unreservedly, leaving the viewer to wonder just what it is that drives him (a question the movie avoids answering). Raines’ involvement so soon into the investigation, and the way in which he’s allowed to take the lead on so many interviews is concerning in terms of likelihood (it doesn’t help that Raines is often unnecessarily aggressive as well), and a sequence where Kenner “sees” the events described to him by Angela is another cause for concern, as it comes across as a stylistic exercise rather than a character trait.

Kenner is the viewer’s guide through the events of the movie but he proves an unreliable guide, prone to making schoolboy errors in terms of the investigation, and behaving unprofessionally with Angela. The movie doesn’t give any real reason for the waywardness of his behaviour, and as the mystery deepens his growing paranoia (and belief) that the satanic cult is real causes him to behave so irrationally that the extent of it becomes unconvincing. With Gray already acting strangely, and with most of the local community seemingly in thrall to the cult that no one can identify, Amenábar’s decision to have Kenner become a victim as well becomes exasperating rather than effective in terms of the drama.

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Viewers should be able to determine the movie’s outcome without too much trouble, but once they do, and once the movie reaches that point, the whole thing collapses in on itself and the last fifteen minutes feel like a compromise instead of a conclusion decided on from the start. Amenábar does his best, but even with the support of Hawke and Watson, he doesn’t appear to be fully in control of his own narrative or where it’s going. Scenes feel divorced from each other, and too often, characters act oddly because the script needs them to.

The performances are committed at least, with Hawke giving his all in yet another not-fully-realised horror thriller, and Watson putting Hermione Granger firmly behind her as the victim(?) whose safety becomes Kenner’s primary concern. Thewlis and his character are abandoned by Amenábar two thirds of the way through, while the rest of the supporting cast (save Dencik) do what they can in respect of filling in the blanks. In the end, Regression is a movie where the characters exist to service the plot, and at no point do any of them feel organic, leaving the cast to try and work out what’s the best approach for each one. It leads to a clash of acting styles in some scenes, and a lack of cohesion in others. Amenábar at least keeps things visually interesting, albeit in a dour, dark-hued way, and the sequences of satanic worship and sacrifice are well shot and edited together, but all in all this needed a tighter script and a better ending to be anywhere near successful.

Rating: 5/10 – though Regression is based around real events that occurred over a period of time, it never really offers a cohesive or credible story to match its general assumptions about what was happening at the time; not as scary or effective as it would like to be, the movie winds up playing it safe instead of giving the viewer any real food for thought.