If you’re going to make a horror film about misdirection and surprises, at least make the revelations later on in your narrative count for something and give the initial setup some weight and relevance. Alejandro’s Amanábar’s Regression is a piss poor attempt at what I just vaguely outlined as well as in telling a coherent, believable story that arrives somewhere satisfactory.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s there was spooky mass hysteria revolving around continued reports of satanic ritual abuse and here those who suffered it, those who perpetrated and covered it up and those who investigated it are explored, starting with Ethan Hawke as an intense local detective in a small town who takes special interest in the case of a teenage girl (Emma Watson) who claims to have been tortured and abused as a young girl, by several cultists including her father. Together with a wry psychoanalyst (David Thewlis) he starts a murky investigative procedure into this girl’s past and the collective secrets of the entire town. Many involved indeed do have repressed memories of ritual horrors conducted in secret ceremonies where unspeakable acts happened and the devil was summoned. But did they, and was he? That’s the problem with this story as a whole.
The film tries to arrive somewhere entirely different from where it started out and the result is an embarrassing mess. Exploring ideas of collective mass hysteria and paranoid delusion are one thing but when you spend so much of your narrative building things from a literal horror-centric standpoint and then abruptly turn it on its heels like they do here it’s a giant misstep and ruins the whole thing. There are numerous detailed, graphic and genuinely disturbing scenes of satanic abuse that are fairly effective until the story bares its true colours and all mood and tension they tried to build is sucked out of the room. Hawke is good at displaying unstable nature as a guy who gradually starts to lose control of his sanity and Watson, at least for the first two thirds of the film, is believable in her traumatized desperation and fear, while Thewlis is always reliable no matter what. Their hard work is ultimately swallowed up by a hollow, pointless and stupidly lazy narrative that is so half cooked you can practically hear the MacBook still whirring as the last few lines of the script are hurriedly typed out to rush the film into production. Amanábar has made some good films before (The Others, The Sea Inside) but he lets things get right out of control here and loses sight of whatever it was he started out with at the outset big time. It’s a shame because I’ve waited for a good story about all these freaky claims for years. Somewhere out there is a great script and resulting film based around the satanic worship scandals from back then, but this sure as hell ain’t it. Not even close.
Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is an odd one, a film that I enjoyed for the fact that it somewhat cuts ties to the biblical tale it bases itself on and does it’s own thing. The style and tone are so out of place and out of time that one could almost imagine this being set sometime far, far in the future instead of the distant past. Aronofsky introduced a very earthy, tactile and nature based aesthetic with his film The Fountain (which is my favourite film ever made), and he explores it further here, with time-lapse photography of plants growing, barren landscapes that suggest either a very young planet earth or a very old one and simple, elemental costumes that could be of both ancient ilk or post apocalyptic fashion. The story is quite literally as old as time, and given new life by a fantastic cast of actors starting with Russell Crowe as Noah, a man jaded by humanity and conflicted by forces beyond his own understanding. Jennifer Connelly, Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman and others play his family, one of whom knocks up Emma Watson, causing quite the controversy when the almighty creator commands Noah to build that ark before the monsoons come. Anthony Hopkins is the prophet Methuselah, and Ray Winstone’s Tubal Cain a rough hewn archetype of all of our worst qualities as a race. Coolest of all might are Frank Langhella, Mark Margolis, Frank Oz and Nick Nolte as some ancient looking stone golems who are actually angels sent down by the creator to shepherd humans when needed. It’s funny because Nolte is so grizzled and rugged in his old age these days he probably could have just played the role in person instead of voiceover, but as it stands the special effects used to bring them to life are spectacular, a standard that holds throughout the film from landscapes, props, wildlife and general visual mood. Now, I can never get behind Christian films or take them seriously, so it’s a good thing that Aronofsky remains at arm’s length from the religious stuff and takes a more mythological approach to the story in the sense that this could be happening in any world or universe, and isn’t tied down to one theology. Not a perfect film, but the arresting visuals, fantastic cast and overarching message of love and reverence for life in all forms make it something special.
Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban is my favourite film of the series for several reasons. There’s a scene early on where Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon does his best to step in for Richard Harris, who was pretty much perfection in the role) addresses the students of Hogwarts at the start of the year, imparting to them how they must beware of darkness residing in their world, but not to forget the power of light, especially that of finding it in even the darkest of places. This is an important moment because with this film and the arrival of director Alfonso Cuarón to the franchise, there’s a distinct change in many aspects of the story, mainly a much darker tone than the first two which were helmed with orchestral gloss by Chris Columbus, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as I love those ones too. But with Cuarón there was not only a focus on the scarier, spookier aspects of the wizarding world, but an attention to detail, time spent on world building instead of breathlessly rushing from set piece to set piece, plus a deeper and more complex emotional core as Harry, Ron and Hermione become teenagers. Voldemort takes a bit of a vacation from terrorizing their world and is substituted by the shadowy, soul sucking dementors, as well as Gary Oldman’s sinister and omnipresent escaped convict Sirius Black. Oldman brings a haunted, unstable edge to Black in his initial scenes and a scrappy gravitas later when we learn the truth about his past. David Thewlis is a fantastic Professor Lupin, spiritual guide and mentor to Harry through some tough times, him and Oldman really class up the joint. There’s a playful inventiveness to this one that the first two just didn’t have, and it stems from the atypical approach often taken in adapting children’s books into films: the darkness, the unknown, the mature elements are often glossed over and the very palette of the story is somehow… simplified. That’s not to say that Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber Of Secrets weren’t dark, scary or mysterious.. they just lacked a certain maturity, genuine menace and pause to reflect on this arresting world and drink in every detail before the next action sequence. Prisoner Of Azkaban is the real deal, an entry with a standalone atmosphere that also sets the tone for some ‘dark and difficult times’ that indeed lie ahead for the rest of the story.