One can make a creepy demonic horror movie, or one can make a sorrowful exposé about a real-world phenomenon that destroyed multiple families, but it’s exceedingly difficult to make both at the same time. Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside) gives it his best shot with Regression, which he both wrote and directed, and comes up woefully short on both sides of the ledger. The film poses as horror for most of its running time, but only viewers who are completely ignorant about “satanic ritual abuse” will find the movie even remotely scary or thrilling, as everyone else will just be waiting for the inevitable but long-delayed “twist.” When the shoe finally drops, however, it does so in a way that makes a mockery of the very real pain that the victims suffered, and even inadvertently (one hopes) provides ammunition for hateful cretins seeking to discredit those who claim to have been abused. Throw in a top-notch cast encouraged to ham it up shamelessly, and you have an early contender for worst of the year.
Pointedly set in 1990, smack in the middle of the American “satanic panic,” Regression stars Ethan Hawke as Bruce Kenner, a driven police detective with no apparent personal life. Assigned to investigate the case of a teenage girl, Angela (Emma Watson), who’s run away from home and taken refuge in a church, Bruce quickly zeroes in on the girl’s father, John (David Dencik), and gets him to confess to having molested her. Except that John has no memory of having done so—he confesses only because he’s sure Angela would never lie, so it must have happened. Subsequent visions induced by a hypnotherapist (David Thewlis) reveal that John was just one member of a large satanic cult that dressed in white pancake makeup and black robes, raping their children and sacrificing newborn infants, whom they then ate. Eventually, Angela’s brother (Devon Bostick) and grandmother (Dale Dickey) are accused of or admit to having been involved, and Angela also points a finger at another local detective, George Nesbitt (Aaron Ashmore). Even Bruce starts experiencing dreams of being attacked by satanists. Or are they dreams?
They are. While Regression doesn’t appear to be based on any particular case (despite an opening statement asserting that “This film is inspired by real events”), anyone who knows what happened in the ’80s and ’90s will spend much of the film rolling their eyes at the amount of clumsy misdirection Amenábar employs to create the illusion that he’s making something like Rosemary’s Baby or The House Of The Devil. At the same time, though, he completely whiffs the opportunity to explore various ways in which well-meaning police officers, psychologists, and parents inadvertently planted false memories in kids, who then came to believe they they’d genuinely experienced those horrific events. Instead, the film, which boasts a delusional “hero” (overzealously played by Hawke) who should ultimately be revealed as the villain, shifts the blame entirely to Angela, who’s revealed to be Machiavellian rather than confused and misled. The movie turns her closing plea, “Believe us,” spoken directly to the camera, into a hissable moment, which has regrettable implications beyond the scope of this hokey, overblown narrative.