Although his face is as regal as can be, Jeff (Rupert Friend) is not the king of the brownstone in Separation, the newest horror film from William Brent Bell. No longer a successful comic book artist, and from there a less ideal husband for queen Maggie (Mamie Gummer) and a father for princess Jenny (Violet McGraw best known for The Haunting of Hill House), Jeff is losing control of his life. And if the realities of divorce won’t get him, the supernatural forces awakened after Maggie’s sudden death will.
Not the best plot summary for Separation, but it’s certainly more correct than those emphasizing Jenny currently in circulation. While she may be the first character we meet and is the heart of the plot, Dad is instead the one the film spends most of its time shadowing. Not a major wrinkle as Jeff’s life has enough drama to fill the film’s 107 minutes—battling with Maggie for custody of Jenny, being present for Jenny after Maggie’s gone, proving to Maggie’s dad (Brian Cox) he’s artistic yet not a nincompoop, setting up boundaries with the babysitter (Madeline Brewer), inking projects with colleagues (Eric Troy Miller and Simon Quarterman), and facing whatever is in the shadows—but the perspective is no doubt more adult than teased. Guaranteed, even, going by the opening credits with grisly Dr. Seuss-esque (Jeff himself made the reference) illustrations from Zsombor Huszka and Brett Detar’s theme full of creepy-twinkly notes.
But in combining The Ring meets Mama and switching up the perspective to papa, Separation buckles. Writers Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun don’t know whether this should be a domestic drama with scares or a horror with familial drama. Or they do, and it’s Bell who is confused—where we need character interactions to be impactful he devotes all his efforts on the creepy sequences. And vice versa. Then again, except for one moment where “Twisty” Troy James gets to flaunt his exceptional flexibility, the rest of the chill-inducers range from tame to anticlimactic with questionable editing from Brian Berdan or staging free of necessary build-up that would further defang the over-designed main horror figure.
One can also blame both parties. Neither the Amadeus-Braun duo or Bell seems to want to dress up the film’s lesser gears just for a little bit, just so Quarterman’s character—an expert of darkness who hoards mystical Asian decor—can be more than a walking exposition device. Or at least a tolerable one. Key characters also learn new traits at the pace of the flip to the next page of the script. Don’t be surprised when you find Jeff too stoic to the proceedings—Friend simply wasn’t given enough actorly pasture to interact with. There’s even less for McGraw, so why the Jenny-centric writings for the promos again?
Even the visual department of Separation can’t be relied on. This is a baffling sentence to write when The Haunting’s Karl Walter Lindenlaub is the d.p. and Monsterland’s Ola Maslik designs the sets, but how could they give the background of those Jeff’s train-commuting scenes a pass? The film would go to lengths where time and space become distorted or soaked in demonic red, yet they don’t function in any realm beyond hollow exercises in style. That on top of the overall emptiness, stemming from both the themes and in the way they are expressed, means there’s only one proper way to settle with the film: split from it.