Swimming against the critical tide (a lot), I’m going to be one of the few positive voices on Alejandro Amenábar’s Regression simply because I think it’s pretty good. Now, I’m not saying that this is a great movie, and I am certainly not saying that it’s on a par with Amenábar’s last tussle with the horror genre, The Others (2001). In fact, it’s pretty far removed from that brilliantly creepy ghost story, though I do suspect Regression was an attempt by the director to reclaim the clout The Others gave him. If so, it has failed spectacularly. After opening to blisteringly bad reviews in the UK, Regression got the Weinsteins’ dump treatment Stateside — four-walled into 100 theaters for one week to (barely) honor a commitment for a theatrical release. Neither this nor the critical abuse seems deserved to me.
That said, I understand why it failed with audiences who expected a traditional Satanism horror picture — especially since the film spends most of its length in that mode, and is pretty effective at it. Now, this is where we come to a problem. Explaining what Regression is (and isn’t) inevitably lands us squarely in the realm of spoilers. Bear that in mind before reading on in this and the next paragraph. Even simply likening the audience reaction to that which many horror fans experience with Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) will say too much to the savvy viewer. Going further, I could liken it to John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), which was as much a refutation of its parent film as it was a sequel.
Put simply, what Amenábar has made is a film that uses the tropes of the Satanic horror picture to debunk not only that particular horror sub-genre, but as a commentary on the mass hysteria such tales help to fuel. It is a movie that critiques the very genre that it inhabits — or at least the one it seems to. It’s also a movie that could not exist without that genre. The conundrum here is that Regression bites the genre that feeds it, alienating fans in the process. In truth, they were actually played pretty fairly, since the alternative solutions the movie seemed to be veering toward were far more groan-worthy than the more “troublesome” one that Amenábar provides. The more worthwhile complaint — certainly my biggest problem with Regression — is the sense that it either has to have a twist ending or else turn into a cut-rate riff on Alan Parker’s classic Angel Heart (1987). Thankfully, it has that twist, but it comes across less as a shock than as a relief. Not perhaps the best thing for a thriller, however unorthodox its actual aims may be.
On the surface, Regression is a leisurely-paced thriller in which detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) — with the aid of psychiatrist Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis), who specializes in “regression therapy” — tries to get to the bottom of a child abuse case involving Angela Gray’s (Emma Watson) claim that her father (David Dencik) molested her. What the investigation uncovers (partly through this therapy) leads to ever-darker stories of a Satanic cult that involves not only the father, but perhaps the rest of the family and other community members, including at least one member of Kenner’s own police department.
As a thriller and a procedural investigation movie, there’s nothing wrong with Regression. The pace may be a little slow for some, but it’s reasonably solid and cleverly plotted in that everything we see works for what the movie appears to be, while fitting what it turns out to be. And it is hard to deny that its more horrific scenes are indeed horrific, with a dash of the truly bizarre that dovetails nicely with the film’s actual target. I enjoyed it far more than I didn’t — certainly more than many more highly regarded straightforward horror pictures. The scant audience I saw it with at the noon showing on Friday (not prime time for R-rated horror) seemed divided on it. One woman said it freaked her out, another said nothing, while a man who came in late bailed about 20 minutes before the movie ended (I think we may conclude he didn’t like it). Make of that what you will, but whatever you make of it, do it fast since there’s a better-than 90 percent chance it will be gone on Friday. Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content and for language.