In the late 1990s and early 2000s Alejandro Amenábar directed two of the most striking and dynamic genre movies of the time, 1997’s knotty and terrifying virtual-reality/time travel tale “Abre los Ojos” (“Open Your Eyes”) and 2001’s innovative but in many respects gratifyingly old-fashioned ghost story “The Others.”
His return to horror with the Ethan Hawke-starring “Regression” would understandably be cause for anticipatory celebration. Alas, tripped up by its subject matter, the movie is ultimately a tepid and frustrating experience.
Set in 1990 in the fictional town of Hoyer, Minn., “Regression” begins with Mr. Hawke’s dogged police detective, Bruce Kenner, sinking his teeth into what he at first believes is an unfortunate but routine child abuse case. But the testimony of both the accused abuser John Gray (David Dencik) and the victim, his daughter, Angela (Emma Watson), lead him to believe there’s something else afoot. Soon, aided by the psychiatrist Dr. Raines (David Thewlis), who fancies himself a pioneer in regressive memory therapy, outlandish but seemingly inescapable scenarios of satanic ritual abuse emerge, driving Kenner himself into a panic that appears paranoid.
“Or is it?” is the question that horror movies have been asking since well before Bela Lugosi intoned the immortal line: “Supernatural, perhaps…baloney, perhaps not” in 1934’s “The Black Cat.” Here Mr. Amenábar is concocting a story “inspired by real events” — the decidedly nonfictional town of Jordan, Minn., where satanic ritual abuse allegations were made in the early 1980s, is invoked in the movie — and as such finds himself ethically compelled to finally debunk the thing he’s relying on for cinematic scares in the first place. That’s not an entirely uncommon genre strategy. But here it feels pretty dicey and results in a handsomely realized but unsatisfying, and in one crucial respect, trite, narrative.
“Regression” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Violence, language, baloney. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes.