Isabelle Huppert stars as Greta and Chloë Grace Moretz as Frances in GRETA, a Focus Features release.Credit: Jonathan Hession / Focus Features

Once a staple of 90s horror/thriller cinema, the stalker subgenre takes an unfortunate step backward in Neil Jordan‘s new film, “Greta.”

Chloë Grace Moretz is Frances, a recent New York City transplant still reeling from her mother’s death and father’s too-soon remarriage. One day, Frances is getting off the subway when she notices a handbag and tries to return it. When the Lost and Found is closed, she takes the bag with her to return it to the owner.

Against the warnings of her roommate Erica (Maika Monroe), Frances returns the bag to Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a lonely widow who insists on inviting her in for tea.

Aside from some stilted dialogue, “Greta” is sufficiently intriguing up until this point. Unfortunately, this comprises only about the first four minutes of this 98-minute movie. Before long, Frances and Greta are making plans together as they find something in each other that fills her own void. Erica insists it’s weird that Frances would spend so much time with a random old lady. She serves as the prescient, street-wise oracle.

Chloë Grace Moretz stars as Frances McCullen and Isabelle Huppert as Greta Hideg in GRETA, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Jonathan Hession / Focus Features

The problem is, a young woman befriending a lonely older woman isn’t weird, and most women know this. Erica’s sage caution only serves to shine a spotlight for the audience, highlighting the fact this script was written by men who don’t really know how women think or speak to each other. Ray Wright wrote the original script titled “The Widow.” Director Neil Jordan eventually collaborated with Wright to rework the story. There are several examples of this as the story unfolds, becoming progressively more glaring. Several lines of dialogue are so ridiculous they become downright annoying.

There are other problems with “Greta,” and most of them are the script and direction. Once Frances knows something is not quite right, Greta immediately turns into a scary stalker. There is no escalation of tension. No growing sense of dread. And the attempt at an underlying mystery is dashed fairly quickly by an underwhelming conversation between Frances and a young woman, Alexa (Zawe Ashton), who knew Greta’s daughter.

Chloë Grace Moretz, who took a major step forward last year with “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” is flat and uninteresting here. You worry about her because you’re told to, but Moretz does little to draw sympathy or concern for herself. Whenever she does elicit sympathy, it is usually due to other factors. In particular, her co-workers definitely don’t realize they live in 2019, shrugging their shoulders and refusing to help when an obviously crazy woman won’t leave Frances alone.

Maika Monroe stars as Erica Penn and Chloë Grace Moretz as Frances McCullen in GRETA, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Shane Mahood / Focus Features

But even Frances’ job is a problem. She works as a server at an upscale Manhattan restaurant. This isn’t the issue. The issue is that Frances and Erica met in college and recently graduated, but there is never any indication of either’s major. There is also no hint that either is looking for a job in her chosen field. Frances is a waitress and Erica spends all day doing yoga in the living room. Lazy character development is a disservice to a film that could have been a fun homage to 90s stalker thrillers. Instead, it is a regressive regurgitation of those films and ultimately feels like a project rescued from a long forgotten slush pile.

There is one bright spot, which comes in the form of Academy Award nominee Isabelle Huppert. She is fully committed to her work. The switch from sweet, lonely widow to obsessed psychopath doesn’t make sense and happens too quickly. But Huppert almost salvages this with her withering looks and faux helplessness. It is unfair that Jordan and Wright were content to simply gender swap the villain rather than taking the time to write a version of Greta that feels real. There is nothing about Greta that feels uniquely feminine. The result is a villain that seems like it was originally written as a man and later changed because, yay, diversity!

“Greta” is an unsatisfying thriller, but one that can fill a rainy afternoon with some Chopin and a genuinely funny moment involving Huppert, a gun, and a little ballet. It is also a film where the ending is better than the film that came before it, leaving things on a better note than they might deserve.

“Greta” is distributed by Focus Features and is in theaters now.

GRADE: (★★)