Published Apr 14, 2016The mind is a pretty menacing place to be, filled with as many anxieties and fears as desires and dreams. That was definitely in the head of Chilean-born director Alejandro Amenábar while working on his sixth feature-length film Regression, a psychological thriller that, at its base, deals with how easily our minds can be manipulated, for good or bad.
"We try to think of our brain as a machine, as if it were a computer, but it's actually an organ and it changes and sometimes it operates based on our fears, our desires," he says by phone from Madrid. "How easily we can create, or recreate, the paths in our memories — that's something I didn't really know about and learned while making this movie."
Originally getting his start in the cinema by creating creepy films like 1996's Thesis and the 2001 Nicole Kidman-starring supernatural horror The Others, Amenábar decided to return to the genre after a number of years away. He first wanted to write a movie about the devil, but didn't know how to approach it in a unique and interesting way.
That's when he rediscovered satanic ritual abuse, a mass hysteria and moral panic that came to fame in the 1980s thanks to books like Michelle Remembers, a since discredited work by Canadian author and psychologist Lawrence Pazder that recounts a series of therapy sessions with his eventual wife (then his patient) and her repressed memories involving childhood abuse at the hands of a secret satanic group in Victoria, BC.
Although no evidence of any acts, or allegations just like it, were ever proven, the idea quickly spread around the globe, and still occasionally pops up in the media to this day.
"It was the whole culmination of the church, the police force trying to solve the abductions, and the media, of course, and how they were interacting," Amenábar says.
Each of those prominent pillars of our society, as well as the psychological community, plays an important role in Regression. The film stars Ethan Hawke as a detective stationed in '90s Minnesota, tasked with solving the case of a sexually abused teenager (played by Emma Watson). The story follows his attempts to make sense of a crime so far-fetched it's almost like it doesn't exist, even though everyone from the local reverend (played by Lothaire Bluteau) to an academic psychologist (David Thewlis) thinks it may.
Having tackled the battle of faith vs. science in previous films, the idea of both sides working together interested Amenábar while making the movie.
"What I liked here is that everybody makes a mistake," he says about the widespread fear around satanic ritual abuse. "Both the world of the church and the world of science were trying to give an answer, not exactly going the same way, but were working along somehow."
The media played a major role in making satanic cult rituals seem real. In Regression, the evening news sensationalizes them. For Amenábar, however, the belief in Satan stemmed from going to the cinema.
"In the '70s there were great horror movies… like The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby — we started to see the devil as something very real, very possible," Amenábar says, adding that works like All the President's Men and Marathon Man inspired the film to some degree.
Although satanic cults and the thing they worship are, to many, make believe, you don't have to be a believer to get the message of the movie.
"Fear is the reason it spread," Amenábar says about satanic ritual abuse and it's role in Regression. "It's something that's very contagious."
Elevation Pictures' Regression opens in Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, Winnipeg and Montreal on April 15, and Saskatoon on April 22