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Alejandro Amenábar regresses back to the second-rate horror of his film The Others with Regression, a go-nowhere thriller assembled with dismal carelessness. Amenábar’s latest claims to be inspired by real events, but its intro and concluding text cards are of such a generic variety that the film’s claims of veracity come across as laughable posturing. Any pretense of somber gravity is also undercut by the sheer incoherence of its story, which concerns Hoyer, Minnesota detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) who, in 1990, is handed a case involving a local man named John Gray (David Dencik) who confesses to sexually molesting his daughter Angela (Emma Watson). The catch is that John doesn’t remember committing this crime—a situation that professor Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis) believes he can remedy with regression therapy that will help John unlock his buried memories of abuse.

Those sessions, as well as the rest of Kenner’s investigation, lead to suggestions of satanic cult rituals that were supposedly perpetrated by John and his mother Rose (Dale Dickey) in their creepy old barn, whose door perpetually swings open and shut in the wind, and whose interior is full of chains and platforms and spooky shadows. Angela also has an inverted cross etched into her stomach, which dovetails nicely with her tales about being assaulted by men in robes—including, as John reveals in one of his therapy sessions, Kenner’s partner George Nesbitt (Aaron Ashmore)—and baby sacrifices performed by pale-faced minions of the Dark Lord. In a community fixated on a tell-all book about Beelzebub’s followers, Angela’s the-Devil-made-them-do-it narrative quickly gains traction, including with Kenner, who’s soon having traumatic nightmares about cult baddies.

Thus begins a descent into murky sequences of evil cabals committing unholy acts in the dead of night, with Amenábar’s patient, manicured camera movements—and his palette of washed-out blacks and grays—lending the action a superficial visual polish that masks its basic storytelling disorganization. Key information is handed out in half-formed bits and pieces during Regression’s first third, so that nothing quite makes sense, or is clear enough to generate dramatic engagement. It constantly feels as if some vital line of dialogue, or encounter, was accidentally left on the editing-room floor, resulting in an overriding air of nonsensicality. This lunacy continues once Kenner takes a trip to visit Angela’s brother Roy (Devon Bostwick), who for unclear reasons has left his clan to live in an abandoned Pittsburgh factory, and whose own regression therapy sessions uncover even more befuddling Satanic activity.

Somewhere buried within Regression is a clever genre examination of collective nightmares, and how they’re created, and nurtured, by all manner of sociocultural stimuli. Yet Amenábar’s film can barely lay out its faith-vs.-science-vs.-reason conflicts, much less employ them for critical purposes. Kenner eventually finds himself incapable of distinguishing reality from fantasy, but no matter Hawke’s able brooding, this psychological breakdown makes no sense, in large part because the character is missing any sort of personality trait or backstory that might make his inner struggle lucid. There’s a cursory suggestion that, as an agnostic, Kenner is terrified by the possibility that God and the Devil might exist. However, like so much of Regression, such ideas are hastily floated before becoming lost in a haze of imprecise plot details.

Given that her character is consigned to the sidelines for much of the proceedings, it’s hard to understand what drew Watson to the role of Angela; at least her scant participation means that she largely avoids embarrassing herself in Regression’s silliest moments involving diabolical black masses and absurd home invasions, the latter of which are shrugged off by the victim. By the time it arrives at a finale that marries finger-wagging moralizing with turgid “gotcha!” bombshells, indifference is just about the only emotion elicited by Amenábar’s dud—save, that is, for annoyance at the unearned and deflating self-seriousness with which the film treats its hokey, scare-free material.

Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Writer: Alejandro Amenábar
Starring: Ethan Hawke, David Dencik, David Thewlis, Emma Watson
Release Date: February 5, 2016