A muddled execution undercuts laudable ambitions in the latest effort from director William Brent Bell, who previously demonstrated his talent for turning low-budget horror films into major commercial hits with such movies as The Devil Inside and The Boy. The filmmaker mines deeper emotional terrain than usual with Separation, which attempts to inject scares into a Kramer vs. Kramer-inspired scenario. But the film squanders its intriguing setup and terrific performances by devolving into familiar genre tropes. Not that it will prevent horror-starved audiences from flocking to see it on the big screen thanks to the further lifting of pandemic restrictions.
The story revolves around Jenny (Violet McGraw), the 8-year-old child at the center of a bitter custody battle between her divorcing parents, high-powered lawyer Maggie (Mamie Gummer, playing a variation of the role her mother, Meryl Streep, had in Kramer) and underachieving graphic artist Jeff (Rupert Friend). The emotionally scarred little girl takes solace by playing with a lavish assemblage of horrific puppets dubbed the “Grisly Kin,” inspired by her father’s creations.
Just as Maggie threatens her husband with moving across the country and taking Jenny with her, she’s killed by a hit-and-run driver on a Brooklyn street (the scene is filmed for maximum visceral shock). But that’s only the start of the nightmarish scenario facing Jeff. He begins to experience hellish, red-bathed visions featuring life-size versions of his puppet figures, while Jenny seems to be communicating with a demonic figure who might be the ghost of her mother. Other characters figuring in the proceedings are his wealthy, deeply antagonistic father-in-law (Brian Cox, Succession), who’s suing him for custody of Jenny, and loyal babysitter Samantha (Madeline Brewer, The Handmaid’s Tale), who evidences more than a professional interest in her employer.
Separation ultimately proves more interesting as a dark, character-driven family drama than with its predictable jump scares (effectively abetted by Craig Mann’s disturbing sound design). The horror sequences offer nothing we haven’t seen before, including the eerie, bone-cracking appearance by contortionist Troy James, embodying one of Jeff’s more monstrous puppet characters and performing a backward walk on all fours that recalls the infamous “spider walk” scene originally cut from The Exorcist.
The spooky mayhem is certainly well rendered, but it doesn’t have nearly as much impact as Friend’s terrific turn as the beleaguered father. Delivering a performance miles removed from his macho CIA agent in Homeland, the actor movingly conveys Jeff’s emotional fragility in a way that makes us fully invested in the character’s desperate efforts to keep his daughter. Child actress McGraw, used to this sort of harrowing material thanks to her work in Doctor Sleep and The Haunting of Hill House, handles her demanding chores in ultraprofessional fashion, and Brewer and Cox offer solid support, although the latter’s role is the kind he can do in his sleep.
The screenplay by Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun stumbles when it resorts to such desperate devices as having the vulnerable little girl nearly dying after eating food containing peanuts. (Soon, we’re bound to see a horror film entitled “Allergy Attack.”) And the murder mystery underlying the central storyline might have been more effective if there weren’t so few and such obvious suspects.
Karl Walter Lindenlaub’s lensing of extensive Brooklyn locations provides the proper spooky atmosphere (audience members will certainly look twice crossing the street on the way home), and Brett Detar’s score delivers further jolts. But you know there’s something off about a horror film when you look forward more to the quiet dramatic scenes than the appearances of the creatures that provide its raison d’etre.
Distributor: Open Road Films, Briarcliff Entertainment
Production companies: Yale Productions, RainMaker Films, The Machine Room, Post Film
Cast: Rupert Friend, Brian Cox, Madeline Brewer, Mamie Gummer, Violet McGraw, Troy James
Director: William Brent Bell
Screenwriters: Nick Amadeus, Josh Braun
Producers: Jordan Yale Levine, Jordan Beckerman, Russ Posternak, Jesse Korman, Clay Pecorin, William Brent Bell
Executive producers: Russell Geyser, Jane Oster Sinisi, Seth Posternak, Dennis Rice
Director of photography: Karl Walter Lindlaub
Production designer: Ola Maslik
Editor: Brian Berdan
Composer: Brett Detar
Costume designer: Gina Ruiz
Casting: Judy Bowman, Brandon Henry Rodriguez
Rated R, 107 minutes