On paper, Separation has every ingredient you’d want from a modern horror film: a decent ensemble cast, a naive little girl at the center of the drama, plentiful scares, and disturbing, bizarre creature design. It’s a shame that director William Brent Bell, director of genre flicks that vary wildly in quality (including Stay Alive, The Devil Inside, and both The Boy films), fails to take full advantage of a concept that could’ve gone in a million different directions.
When 8-year-old Jenny (Violet McGraw) is constantly being pulled between her mother and father (the latter of whom gets told: “You’re not special you’re just unemployed!”), tragedy strikes. Her hoity toity mother (Mamie Gummer) gets savagely steamrolled in a hit-and-run accident, leaving Jenny completely in the hands of Jeff (Rupert Friend), her struggling artist father. Insert obvious tropes of struggling dad as he burns dinner and has to order Chinese. Jenny begins seeing creatures, potential embodiments of Jeff’s creations. As Jeff’s sanity unravels, a custody battle and an overzealous new babysitter seem like small potatoes compared to the unnerving horrors that Jeff uses as newfound inspiration.
I expected more from this film, mainly in terms of delivering bizarre visuals and varied monsters. I was longing for it to embrace the bubbling potential. We could’ve gotten something similar to Chucky, or even a full movie where Jeff’s creations come to life a la The Banana Splits Movie. Hidden cameras set up hinted at a Paranormal Activity direction that never comes to pass, and the mother’s early death is very Final Destination. Perhaps in the hands of another filmmaker, the bonkers insanity notch would be dialed up to its truest extreme. Instead, Separation is rather tame. Creepy dolls, and disgusting back-cracking noises from an eerie upside down nightmare within a nightmare, are the best we get. The puppets aren’t utilized enough to make much of an impact beyond the bone-cracking smirking clown man, known as Nerezza. Real-life contortionist Troy James utilizes his physicality and unnerving stature to make Nerezza a particularly memorable baddie.
Whether something is scary is truly in the eye of the beholder, but I can’t picture anyone finding much here to be truly horrific. Overuse of CGI hampers the level of scary immeasurably. There’s absolutely no reason I can think of to use fake flood in a random hit and run incident. More of Separation falls in the so-bad-it’s-good category than anything else. Rupert Friend makes for a very boring lead character, with Violet McGraw’s Jenny outshining him at every major moment. Mamie Gummer is good as Jenny’s mother, a crucial role important to the supernatural elements. The iconic Brian Cox is wasted in a nearly throwaway role as Jenny’s grandfather that seems to tease a bigger involvement. Interesting ideas about marriage, death, and peaking behind the veil to “see things we can’t quite explain” work hard to insist there’s more to this than meets the eye. It isn’t awful, but this Separation could certainly lead to an ugly divorce, especially for horror fans with a more critical eye.
Separation comes to theaters everywhere on April 30th.