Writer-director Alejandro Amenábar looked at the crimes of the early Christian church in Agora; here, he turns his attention to more recent times but similarly has little good to say about organised religion. Inspired by the Satanic Child Abuse scare of the early 1990s – which seems to have begun when social workers began using the term ‘ritual abuse’ to mean ‘repeated abuse’ only for the term to be widely misinterpreted as redolent of cults and robes and black candles – this follows small-town cop Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) as he investigates the case of Angela Gray (Emma Watson), who has accused her ex-alcoholic born again mechanic father (David Dencik) of abusing her. Under ‘regression therapy’, conducted with a metrodome by Professor Raines (David Thewlis), and encouraged by a darkly sinister reverend (Lothaire Bluteau), Angela expands her story to insist that she was molested by white-faced, robed Satanists who are highly placed in town. Plainly wracked with guilt but seemingly unable to recall his crime, Angela’s father also regresses – and accuses friendly cop George Nesbitt (Aaron Ashmore) of being a co-conspirator, which leads to a rift in the department as Bruce insists on busting the officer on zero evidence. Angela’s runaway brother (Devon Bostick) is jittery and evasive about why he is estranged from his family (it turns out he’s gay and that’s the sin his father blames himself for) while her grandmother (Dale Dickey) gets roped in as a suspect and is overcome by demon paranoia to the point when she takes a dive through an upstairs window.
Parallels with the Salem witch trials and other spasms of American hysteria are obvious (though there were similar stories in Britain) and Amenábar tells the story from inside the perspective of the investigator, who becomes convinced that he’s also a target of the shadowy cult. We get vivid bad dreams that look a lot like the sort of chanting black masses seen in the likes of Race With the Devil or The Devil’s Rain – a genre of movie which might well have fuelled the detailed mythology of Satanic Ritual Abuse the way sf films boosted alien abduction lore – and Amenábar and Hawke over-egg the Satanic panic sequences as the cop cracks up thanks to only a few late-night phone calls (which turn out to be from the malicious accuser herself), some coincidences, a sinister soup poster, an erotic nightmare involving Emma Watson’s body double and a hag, a lack in his own life (he’s separated from a wife we never meet) and the understandable enmity of ex-colleagues who are stalking him. Somewhat bluntly, we get to the answer as Bruce finally sees through it all and realises that the whole panic is circular and has been whipped up out of nothing. Watson is low-key and convincing as the attention-seeking villain of the piece, and the chilliest moment comes when Bruce realises that though he’s seen through her and all the prosecutions have been dropped she’ll still be peddling her survivor story to tabloids and trash TV and leaving her family (and the town) in emotional ruins.
Regression suffers from the paradox that films which offer horror movie paranormal thrills but then dismiss them with a rational explanation seem disappointing – even when based on important stories from which lessons still need to be learned. It casts as if it were a full-on horror movie – down to the use of Julian Richings, who seems by law to be a presence in every spooky movie shot in Canada (though here he’s a comic cop rather than a cultist) – and includes enough creepiness to fill a misleading trailer; it’s possible that a more naturalistic, distanced approach might have made for a more pertinent film. Bluteau, who has fanatic associations from his performance in Black Robe, is a creepy presence and the film subtly hints that the reverend might be more of a menace than any imaginary Satanist – stressing the real-world truth that there are exponentially more cases of children being abused by ordained Christians (and ministers of other faiths) than there are of devil-worshippers doing anything wicked.