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Review: 'Separation' Not Scary, Just Confusing

by Kevin Taft
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday May 3, 2021
'Separation'  (Source:Briarcliff Entertainment)

Billed as a horror film about some creepy life-size puppet-creatures lurking in a New York brownstone, William Brent Bell's "Separation" is more of a drama about a family tragedy that has horror elements awkwardly thrown in.

While the design of the Tim Burton-inspired creatures is exemplary, there isn't a solid script in which to utilize them. Written by Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun, the film takes around 37 minutes to really get to the supernatural stuff. There's one random scene of a twisty-turny life-size puppet coming to life shoe-horned in to keep us invested, but it doesn't make sense and the character's reaction to it is curiously non-existent.

The story follows unemployed graphic novel creator Jeff (Rupert Friend) and his ex-wife Maggie (Mamie Gummer), who are trying to figure out how to handle custody of their daughter, Jenny (Violet McGraw of "The Haunting of Hill House"). Maggie is a trust-fund kid, so the house and the money they have belongs to her and her domineering father, played by Brian Cox. Jeff just wants to resurrect his old comic book about a group of gruesome creatures that has delighted his daughter all her life. She even has dolls and puppets of all of the characters.

But when tragedy occurs and Maggie is accidentally killed, a pall falls over Jeff and Jenny and they have to find their way out of it. Enter life-size versions of Jeff's comic book characters. They stand tall in the shadows, seemingly waiting to strike, but not really doing anything but looking fairly creepy. Jenny seems to be friendly with them, but why isn't made clear in the script.

Even Jenny's babysitter, Samantha (Madeline Brewer), is witness to some unsettling stuff, but whenever something crazy happens it's forgotten soon after. Between grandpa trying to get custody of Jenny, and some suspicion around Maggie's death, "Separation" does just that: It separates the film into two stories. One is about the aftermath of the accident. The other is why Jeff's creations are starting to haunt them.

These two elements do not mesh together at all, and it's a frustrating watch trying to make sense of any of it. The creatures are particularly unnerving, but aside from standing in darkened corners, outside windows (one of the most visually pleasing sequences), or hovering over a bed, their presence is head-scratching. Why Jeff's creations would haunt the daughter and not him (except literally once, and for no reason) is a mystery, especially when she refers to one of them as her dead mother. Why would some creepy Punch & Judy style character remind her of her mom?

The actors try their best, but to be fair Gummer is barely in the film and doesn't do much more than bitch at her ex. Friend tries to work the distraught father bit, but there are times his reactions to the odd things happening around him are bland. Cox is a one-note grumble machine, and Brewer has some moments, but it is McGraw that does the heavy lifting here. And she's, like, seven.

If the film is in any way successful, maybe Bell and company can come up with more of a mythology to Jeff's graphic novel and why it has invaded reality. This film could be more or less pushed aside as set-up, and then the art design and creature shop folks could really go to town. They just need a decent story to play around in.

"Separation" opens in theaters April 30th.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.

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