It’s been six years since Alejandro Amenábar, best known for the haunted house thriller The Others, released a feature film, and his latest returns to that chilling genre with stars Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson. In Regression, Hawke plays Bruce Kenner, a detective investigating criminal accusations by Angela Gray (Watson) against her father, John (David Dencik). There’s a twist, though: John has admitted to wrongdoing, though he has no recollection of what happened—and a psychologist is summoned to help him recover his memories of the events that took place.
The first full trailer is opaque in its rendering of what terrible crime John may have committed, but it’s probably meant to echo the Satanic witch hunts that gripped certain parts of America in the 1980s and early ’90s. During that period there was a wave of high-profile cases in which day-care providers were accused of sexually abusing children via Satanic ritual. Charges were often outlandish and salacious (“drowning and dismembering babies in front of the children,” “putting blood in the children’s Kool-Aid”), and corroborating evidence either tenuous or non-existent (many cases relied almost entirely upon the testimony of impressionable toddlers and adolescents). In the Regression trailer, Angela’s haunting memories include “chanting,” “robes,” and a “black mask.” Meanwhile, a metronome in the form of a cross ticks back and forth menacingly. The film is set in Minnesota in 1990—which puts it firmly in the midst of the moral panic, the same year that one of the most well known of the cases, the lengthy McMartin Preschool Trial in California, ended with zero convictions and millions of government money spent.
As Linda Rodriguez McRobbie wrote last year in Slate, the real victims of the widely publicized ritual abuse trials turned out to be the accused themselves (and their families)—people like Fran and Dan Keller, a Texas couple who were released in 2013 after serving 21 years when the Travis County district attorney’s office found that they had received an unfair trial. In the past couple of decades, public sentiment has turned against the panic the accusations caused, and those years are now looked upon as a less-enlightened period in America’s recent history. So it’ll be interesting to see Amenábar’s take in Regression: Does he present Angela’s case as a real, Satanic experience that actually occurs within the world of the story, or will the film be a larger commentary on the horrific fallout of unfounded hysteria?
Here’s hoping it’s the latter—it’s hard to imagine any other scenario being scarier than the real-life consequences of mass panic. We’ll be able to find out when Regression opens in August.