For over 50 years, dating at least back to 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, some of our greatest actresses have spent their career doldrums playing psychopathic monsters in trashy thrillers. There is nothing noble about the hagsploitation tradition, but there is an awful lot that is dizzying, rollicking fun, seeing icons and towering screen presences like Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead turning their considerable powers to breathing life into ratty hold horror shows, not so much giving any real class to these things, as giving them a kind of apocalyptic fury. They are rancid and wonderful films, and though they peaked in the '60s and mostly died in the '70s, they have never fully left us.

We have upon us now an especially polished and artful version of the form: Greta, directed by bona fide arthouse director Neil Jordan, and starring living legend Isabelle Huppert, beloved of all Europe's most thoughtful, psychologically severe auteurs. Huppert's been tending more and more lately to lender her status as one of the most intellectually powerful working actors to give extreme weight to pleasant fluff or florid trash; think, if you will, of 2016's rape thriller comedy Elle, for which she received her wildly overdue first Oscar nomination. And Greta is obviously part of that trend, and there's no doubting it during any of the many moments where Huppert gloms onto Jordan and Ray Wright's screenplay and gives it the full hambone treatment. Or when she starts twirling around and around in her stockings as laughs maniacally. She's absolutely having a blast with a part that blatantly worships her as a screen presence, an actress, and a symbol.

You know who's not having a blast? Me, for one. Greta has a lot of directions it can go: seedy, kitschy, campy, sordid, vulgar, grotesque. The hell of it is, I think Jordan actually supposes he's making a movie that's at least some of those adjectives. But he is not: Greta is, first and above all, just not much fun at all, and that would appear to be the most important thing for it to have been. It's not that it supposes itself better than its genre; i's just not a good genre film.

The protagonist is not Greta Hideg herself, played with relish (but not, alas, very communicable relish) by Huppert, but Frances McCullen, a recent transplant to Manhattan played by Chloë Grace Moretz. And that, frankly, is the start of the film's problems. Moretz is an actor of extremely specific skills: her most effective performances, dating back to her child actor days, are the ones that trade on her essential toughness, a kind of blunt hard edge that makes her seem alert and suspicious and wiry. For some reason, she keeps getting roles that require to be a retiring, fragile, shy thiing, and this is a keen example. Frances is a hapless innocent incapable of navigating the tough streets of New York or standing up to a force of will like Greta. And yeah, I mean, who among us could stand up to Huppert's force of will. But the point is, Frances needs to seem constantly imperiled and out of her depth, and Moretz simply cannot provide that.

So anyway, Frances is new in town, living with her idly rich playgirl college friend Erica (Maika Monroe) in a bought-and-paid-for condo, and one day she finds a handbag abandoned on the subway. Taking her naïve innocence and sense of righteousness (honed in Boston, which this film seems to regard as something like a Minnesota farming town), she goes to find the handbag's owner, discovering that same Greta, a sweet old widow with a semi-estranged daughter in Paris, and a profound loneliness. With Frances still reeling from the death of her mother, it's a perfect fit: one surrogate daughter for one surrogate mother. Except that Greta is also a violent psychopath who turns to stalking once Frances discovers a whole cupboard full of green handbags, each with the name of the helpless young girl who brought it back to its owner.

Perfectly sturdy stuff, but made with little flair or skill. Greta is a largely ordinary thriller that turns by inches into a very lousy horror movie after its midway point, and suffers at all points from a hugely perfunctory screenplay. The problems show up almost immediately: the film's urgency in getting us to PsychoGreta is quite unseemly, racing Frances through the most dead-eyed, functional scenes of exposition, barely hanging together chronologically at all, until it deposits her at Greta's door. It only gets a little bit better after that, blatantly using Erica as an object to receive or provide whatever exposition is pragmatically necessary to advance the story to Greta's first of many insane rages, and using dialogue to spackle the plot together with an almost comical lack of artistry or flow.

Once it actually gets to those first stalking scenes, the film does at least slow down, though it does not get better; for it is shortly after this point that the script's addiction to fake-outs and twists starts to manifest. The very worst of this is a nested pair of "it was all a dream" sequences that adds nothing besides five minutes of running time (out of a total of 98; a short running time, but impressively badly-paced), is never referenced again, and tells us nothing about the characters or conflict. But damn near every plot point in the last half-hour is a lazily telegraphed chain of clichés that think that, because they bother to put 90 seconds into trying to fool us, means that they are clever.

Every now and then, something magnetic happens: Huppert standing across a street, staring through window, with an utterly unreadable look in her eyes; Huppert having a screaming freak out in a restaurant. The first of these works as suspense, the second as camp, and either of those modes would have been a fine fit for this material. But instead, it's mostly just stiff and sullen and hideously bland. What should be the film's signature moment, Greta's mad little dance, is rendered almost illegible by the smudgy underlighting that characterises all of Seamus McGarvey's cinematography in the interior shots (I am confident the filmmakers though this connoted "atmosphere" rather than simply "wait, I can't see"), and then compounded by the blocking that puts Huppert in the background, out of focus, in multiple shots that go for detached artistry rather than any sort of emotional impact.

Basically, it's a square, dull movie that can be almost anything in the world other than square. Huppert goes for it, and it's at least sort of okay to watch; but she goes for it in exactly the ways you'd expect of her, if you know any of her recent work at all. So there's not even the pleasure of shock. It's just a drab little thriller that thinks it's much fancier than is the case, with psychological acuity that it doesn't possess, and tension that its paint-by-numbers storytelling does not generate. It's a failure as trash and a failure of art cinema, and in wasting its star turn on such thin material, it's an early contender for one of 2019's biggest cinematic disappointments.