Troubling for all the wrong reasons, Regression aims for Exorcist territory in its quest for answers in the ageless battle of Man versus Satan versus Spirituality, but instead of a meditation on the hidden, hideous influences that drive human beings to commit awful acts, it turns to slick, art-directed sensationalism and a who-cares-whodunit storyline that shunts any lofty ideas to the periphery.
“Based on true events” in the same generic sense that 2007’s The Strangers tried to posit, writer-director Alejandro Amenabar’s (The Others) original script begins with promise: family man John Gray (David Dencik – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) confesses to raping his daughter, Angela (Emma Watson – The Bling Ring), but has no recollection of the incident. Interrogated by cop Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) and assisted by psychologist Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis), the duo embarks on an alternating quest of weeding out family members – from grandmother Rose Gray (Dale Dickey – Winter’s Bone) to Angela’s brother, Roy (Devon Bostick) – and the use of so-called “regression therapy” to pull repressed memories to the surface.
As with everything else in Regression, the therapy itself ultimately proves a gimmick. Per Wikipedia, “the technique used during past life regression involves the subject answering a series of questions while hypnotized to reveal identity and events of alleged past lives.” The scenes where Raines employs this method are uneventful letdowns, hinging on performances that are misdirected to a grievous degree. There is no urgency to the therapy because it is employed in a frustratingly dishonest manner, using it as thriller collateral to develop red herrings instead of characters. Had the film taken a faux-documentary approach to the therapy itself, it might have found a more engaging rhythm. Here, as shoehorned into a below-average police procedural, it comes across as a throwaway device (and a postscript revealing that – SPOILER! – the method was discredited comes off as a low blow).
Considering how misguided every other element of Regression is, the overqualified character-actor cast is left to fend for themselves. As Kenner, Hawke tries his damnedest to bring a hard-bitten jadedness to his agnostic cop, but descends into paranoia as unfounded as it is silly (with his Cowardly Lion recitation of The Lord’s Prayer a particular low point). Dickey, who lent genuine presence to Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard (now there’s a meditative flick that takes its themes and actions seriously), is reduced to a shifty-eyed crazy cat lady. Thewlis, meanwhile, pontificates on the nature of evil to such a degree that one wonders why Rob Zombie didn’t cast him as Dr. Loomis in the remake of Halloween. And Watson, as the pure and virginal victim, imbues Angela with subtleties that recall Jodie Foster’s mature performance in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (a film that tells a not altogether different story in a far more sensible manner); unfortunately, said subtleties are amplified, expanded, and exploited to a maximal degree by Amenabar’s callous handling.
At its strangest, Regression cribs from such inquisitive Italian gialli as Who Saw Her Die? and What Have You Done to Solange?, but its linear unraveling nullifies any intrigue or thrills. Paradoxically, its rape-of-a-minor story catalyst and whodunit plot makes Amenabar’s decision to approach the film as a straight thriller even more crass.
Employing jump-scares and horror clichés to diminishing effect, Regression also can’t make any artistic flourishes without leaning on painfully obvious imagery: a fireplace blazes (Satanically!) in the background as Kenner is disturbed by nightmares; cloak-wearing Satanists don Dimmu Borgir makeup; power outages occur before bad things happen; (Satanic!) black cats appear as minions of the Dark Lord; and the tired device of infant sacrifice to conjure the forces of eeeeeeevil. Considering how overplayed these clichés were in 2014’s Deliver Us from Evil (more Satanic bunk purportedly based on true events), their inclusion here creates eye-rolling tedium instead of tension.
The reason pop-culture touchstones like Rosemary’s Baby (fiction) and The Exorcist (alleged fact as a springboard for fiction) are fondly-remembered, cerebral horror films that resonate to this day is the fact that they weren’t afraid to leave some of their ambiguities unaddressed. The greater intellectual discussion of such things comes not from warmed-over clichés served up with a minimum of inspiration, but films that allow their subject matter to breathe, offering just enough to keep the viewer morbidly curious…not the tidy, dishonest resolution Regression offers. Insofar as Satanic-panic films go, this one is all too happy to live up to its title.
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 3 out of 10