Hello, everyone! There is nothing scarier than adorable children and their terrifying imaginary friends. Can’t mess that up, right? You can if you’re the movie Separation, a new horror film that proves that throwing a thousand tropes at the wall does not guarantee a frightening film. I saw this at a discount matinee where the projector didn’t work for the first fifteen minutes, and yet that was less of a train-wreck than the actual movie.
Synopsis: Maggie (Mamie Gummer) and Jeff (Rupert Friend) don’t see eye to eye on raising their daughter Jenny (Violet McGraw). Resentful of what she views as Jeff’s lack of ambition and neglectful parenting style, Maggie asks for a divorce and sues for full custody of their daughter. Bolstered by her wealthy father (Brian Cox), and the fact that Jeff, a former comic book artist, hasn’t been employed for years, her victory seems certain, until a sudden accident results in her death. Now Jeff must raise Jenny alone in their lonely brownstone with only the help of Samantha (Madeline Brewer), Jenny’s young and overfamiliar babysitter. As Jeff tries to get back on his feet with a new comic book gig, Jenny grows close to a mysterious figure she calls “Mommy.” Determined to keep his daughter, Jeff must confront the figure haunting his house, and learn the true meaning of fatherhood.
My thoughts: Separation is a rollercoaster of incoherent aesthetics and ideas that attempts to be a family drama, creature horror, and crime thriller at once. Better horror movies have flawlessly pulled off this genre blending (Babadook and Lights Out come to mind), but Separation doesn’t have a strong enough script, nor a strong enough visual hand, to achieve the same feat.
The central conflict revolves around a parenting dispute. Maggie thinks that Jeff is a neglectful father, to the point that she would rather pay off her husband with a settlement check than let him have visitation rights for his daughter. Whether Jeff is actually a bad parent is up for debate; he’s absent-minded and not exactly father of the year material, but it’s clear he loves his daughter, and Maggie’s decision to essentially steal Jenny away from Jeff seems vindictive and almost psychopathic. It also seems incredibly unrealistic.From the first scene, Maggie is set up as the villain of the film, yet her motivation doesn’t click. It would be one thing if Jeff’s parenting placed Jenny in danger, but the worst thing he did was react too slowly to a bump on the head. Hardly justification for a mother to go full nuclear, let alone become a vengeful ghost.
Even though an intractable divorce is horrific enough, Separation needs to add some actual horror to earn its place in the genre, so it settles for perhaps the most bizarre usage of dolls I’ve seen yet. Freaky vintage dolls have been successfully featured in such horror movies as Dead Silence, Annabelle, and Poltergeist, but even with those movies as a template, Separation doesn’t know what to do with its plethora of puppets. On the one hand, the dolls are a benevolent force, remnants of a happier time when Jeff and Maggie created a successful comic book about the dolls called Grisly Kin. On the other hand, they are a force of evil, frightening Jenny and Jeff and preventing them from forming a stronger father and daughter bond.
While the dolls are truly freaky looking, and in some scenes sent some genuine chills down my back, they are not used to appropriate effect. In one early scene, Jeff is chased through multiple dreams by a crooked-man style doll in a prison jumpsuit, and in another scene, he is haunted by the ghostly figure of a ten foot Punch and Judy marionette. Even though both of these dolls could be terrifying in the right hands, director William Brent Bell uses them like a blunt force instrument, battering the audience over the head without an ounce of tension. Good horror movies sprinkle glimpses of their monsters throughout the entire movie, often saving a full body view until the terrifying climax. Separation shoots itself in the foot by throwing the full extent of these creepy creatures at the audience before the first third of the movie is over. The movie gives itself no room to play with the audience’s imagination, thus ensuring that they’ll be bored of the monster before the film even reaches the climax.
Aesthetically, the movie makes some really bizarre choices. Several scenes feature Jeff in a red-soaked nightmare world haunted by life-size dolls. Again, other movies have done these “upside down” worlds extremely well (Insidious), but in this movie, the CGI looks cheap and oversaturated, like something made in Windows Paint. What’s more, there’s no rhyme or reason to these sudden shifts between the real world and the upside down world. Are they Jeff’s dreams, or can the monster follow him into the city? All horror movies need rules to govern their world, or else they start to lose any sense of gravity. Like many things in this movie, the inclusion of these scenes seem haphazard and incoherent.
Mediocre family drama, subpar horror movie, and bizarre crime thriller? The film checks all three by adding a psychological swerve in the film’s eleventh hour that suggests that Maggie’s accidental death…wasn’t an accident! It’s a strange change in tone that adds nothing to an already messy and over-bloated film and has no real bearing on the film’s ending. A vicious script editor could have have nipped that idea in the bud, but this is what happens when your horror movie is directed by the guy who also directed The Boy! What is this man’s obsession with dolls?
There are a few saving graces in this film. The award for best acting goes to little Violet McGraw, whose angelic smile and dead-eyed stare renewed my faith in the power of creepy children. Honorable mention goes to Brian Cox, playing to type as a crotchety old rich man who thinks he knows everything and will denigrate your livelihood if you disagree. All the other adults in the film seem horribly miscast; Rupert Friend spends the whole film stumbling around in a state of bewilderment, Mamie Gummer’s only job is to be a caricature of a vindictive wife (oh the horror of the female breadwinner!), and Madeline Brewer is a surprisingly terrible babysitter for someone who makes a living from it. Everyone but Jenny and her grandfather seem like they were plopped into this movie by accident and can’t figure a way out. Horror movies aren’t known for Oscar worthy acting, but they usually put some more effort into it.
Final thoughts: I saw a review that described this movie as “Insidious meets Kramer v. Kramer” and I think that’s an insult to both of those far superior films. Separation is less of a movie than a piece of concept art that was given a half-baked script and 10 million dollars. The plot is incoherent, the scares are lukewarm, and the acting is shoddy. You will get more entertainment value from making your own creepy vintage dolls and using them to scare your mom than you will get from watching this movie.