I’m detecting a doll fetish as director William Brent Bell follows up “The Boy” and “Brahms: The Boy II” with another horror film that features bigger adult-size dolls that haunt a Brooklyn brownstone in this not-so-scary tale of possession. “Separation” suffers from a senseless storyline and a set of unlikable characters with no redeeming qualities. The special effects are quite menacing but wasted as the film fails to connect with the audience.

Review

SEPARATION (2021)
Violet McGraw, Brian Cox, Rupert Friend, Madeline Brewer, Mamie Gummer, Troy James,
Simon Quarterman, Manny Perez, Chelsea Debo
Directed by William Brent Bell

Maggie (Mamie Gummer) works as a lawyer for the firm run by her father Rivers (Brian Cox). For the last two years, she’s kept the family afloat while her unemployed husband Jeff (Rupert Friend), a graphic artist who used to illustrate comics, struggles to find a job. Their 8-year-old daughter Jenny (Violet McGraw) is unfortunately caught in the middle as Maggie and Jeff constantly argue over his lack of motivation and her workaholic nature. You can probably guess their conversations. If there was ever any love in this marriage it crumbled a long time ago.

Jenny spends most of her time withdrawn in her room playing with a set of horror dolls named “The Grisly Kin” based on her dad’s illustrations. Had Jeff played his cards right he could have landed a television show based on his creations but chose instead to argue with the network over creative differences. It’s the main cause of contention in his marriage. Had Jeff taken the deal Maggie could have spent more time with Jenny instead of working for her father. She has built up so much animosity towards Jeff that she files for divorce seeking full custody of Jenny.

It’s a little too late but Jeff gets off his butt and takes a gig as an inker for a new dark comic series instead of spending most of the time reminiscing about his glory days with Jenny’s 20-year-old babysitter Samantha (Madeline Brewer), a comic book enthusiast who idolizes Jeff. Maggie, meanwhile, drops a bomb that she’s relocating to Seattle and taking Jenny with her. This sets up a custody battle with Rivers representing his daughter while taking every opportunity to paint his son-in-law as a deadbeat.

The tone shifts after a hit-and-run tragically claims Maggie’s life and now Jeff is faced with raising Jenny on his own. Rivers is still hell-bent on taking Jenny away from her father and is now considering battling for custody of his granddaughter.

The script by Josh Braun and Nick Amadeus fails at connecting any of these characters with the audience. The women in the story are all evil, Maggie is a battle-ax, Samantha is a loon, Jeff is a slacker, Rivers is an a-hole, and Jenny is a pawn caught up in a bad story that doesn’t generate any sympathy.

Simon Quarterman plays Jeff’s new boss Alan, a spiritual guy who’s writing the supernatural graphic novel that Jeff is working on. He serves as the film’s play-by-play medium informing Jeff that his brownstone is haunted, and it sounds like an angry soul trapped in this world. Maggie are you there? He must also be a shaman since he gives Jeff a psychoactive brew to drink in order to communicate with the evil entity aka his almost ex-wife.

While the makeup effects at times looking creepy as Jeff’s Grisly Kin figurines come to life when the entities take on their appearance — one of them played by contortionist Troy James doing his Linda Blair impersonation — but it’s never explained why. If one of the ghosts is really Maggie, then why does she appear as one of Jeff’s creations? I would imagine that would be the last thing she would want. Also, these spooky things pop up without really causing any havoc. I was waiting for Linus from Peanuts to make an appearance exclaiming “Look, there he is, The Great Pumpkin” as the Grisly Kin figure rises from the darkness and quickly fades away.

The CGI effects on the other hand look cheap as in one scene when the family portrait catches on fire but only on Jeff’s side causing his face to look distorted as if it were melting instead of the huge flames actually burning the portrait. In other scenes, a red filter is used to wash out the color which seems like a gimmick from the William Castle playbook. They should have passed out special glasses you could put on to “shield yourself from the terror.”

“Separation” fails miserably as a horror film but fares better as a divorce drama. The admirable cast is caught up in a bunch of supernatural hogwash. If you want to see Brian Cox in a horror film rent 2002’s “The Ring.” I’ll take Samara over Samantha any day.

(2 stars)

Now showing in theaters

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. More by Joe Friar

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