Review: ‘Separation’ (2021), starring Rupert Friend, Brian Cox, Madeline Brewer, Mamie Gummer and Violet McGraw

April 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Violet McGraw and Rupert Friend in “Separation” (Photo by Blair Todd/Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Separation” (2021) 

Directed by William Brent Bell

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the horror film “Separation” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A recent widower and his 8-year-old daughter experience unexplained and spooky things in their home.

Culture Audience: “Separation” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching empty-headed horror movies that are dreadfully boring and don’t even bother to explain why the horror is happening in the story.

Violet McGraw in “Separation” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

Anyone who watches the horror flick “Separation” will be left with lots of questions that start with the word “why.” Why was the family in this movie being haunted? Why bother introducing scary characters in the story and not explain their origins? Why was this movie even made? Don’t expect any answers to these questions if you decide to waste your time watching this garbage.

Yes, it’s a stupid haunted house movie. And yes, there’s absolutely nothing original or clever about it. But what makes “Separation” so hard to take is that it drags with such repetitious monotony with no plot development to explain why this haunting is taking place. Any moments that are meant to be scary are few and far in between and end up repeating themselves with the same scenarios. This movie’s idea of making a scene terrifying is changing the cinematography to crimson red.

Directed by William Brent Bell, “Separation” has a cast of talented actors whose skills are squandered in this odiously bad movie, which was sloppily written by Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun. The movie’s opening scene takes place in a New York City brownstone townhome, where 8-year-old Jenny Vahn (played by Violet McGraw) is doing what a lot of 8-year-old girls do: play with dolls. However, Jenny’s dolls are creepy-looking horror dolls and she’s sitting in the middle of a circle of lighted candles. Is she some type of child witch?

While Jenny is playing with the dolls, she speaks to a witch doll that she has named Scarlet. Jenny says, “We must be quiet, or else we’ll scare her away.” Who is this female that shouldn’t be scared away? Later in the movie, Jenny refers to someone named Baby, which sounds like an imaginary friend. Don’t expect the movie to explain that either.

While Jenny is playing with her dolls in the attic that looks more like a witch’s lair than an innocent child’s playroom, her father Jeff Vahn (played by Rupert Friend) is downstairs in a study room, hanging out with the family babysitter Samantha Nally (played by Madeline Brewer), who is in her 20s. Jeff is a comic book illustrator who’s showing Samantha his main claim to fame: a horror comic book series called “The Grisly Kin,” featuring a group of characters that look like they’re from a twisted fairy tale. Samantha is also a comic book enthusiast, and she gushes to Jeff about how talented she thinks he is.

“The Grisly Kin” was such a hit that the main characters were made into stuffed doll toys, which are on display in the Vahn home. Jenny is seen playing with these dolls throughout the movie. At one point in his career, Jeff was in talks to make “The Grisly Kin” into a TV pilot, but the deal never happened because he and the TV executives had “creative differences.”

For the past two years, Jeff has been unemployed, while his prickly wife Maggie (played by Mamie Gummer) has been the family’s breadwinner. Maggie works for the law firm of her domineering and stern father Paul Rivers (played by Brian Cox), and she tells Jeff in an argument that she hates it because she wouldn’t have to work there if Jeff had a job. Jeff’s long unemployment has caused a lot of tension in Jeff and Maggie’s marriage, which viewers find out is deteriorating to the point of no return, much like this movie’s plot.

While Samantha is in awe of Jeff, Maggie has contempt for Jeff. At one point, Maggie snarls at Jeff: “You’re not special. You’re just unemployed.” Maggie is also seen arriving home, looking at the mail and becoming irritated when she sees that the couple’s electricity bill hasn’t been paid and they’ve received a final notice. Apparently, Jeff has shirked his responsibility for paying the bill, so Maggie has another reason to be annoyed with him.

Meanwhile, in the attic, Jenny is startled by a bird at the window, and she falls down and hits her head and gets an injury on her forehead that causes bleeding. When Maggie comes home and finds out, she’s furious with Samantha and Jeff for leaving Jenny alone in the attic. Maggie is so angry that she won’t let Jeff go with her when she takes Maggie to the hospital.

And then, the next thing you know, Maggie has filed for divorce. Maggie wants full custody of Jenny, while Jeff is contesting it and wants joint custody. In a divorce mediation, Jenny’s father Rivers (Jeff is the only one in the story who calls him Paul) has taken it upon himself to be Maggie’s attorney. (Can you say conflict of interest?) In the mediation meeting, Rivers immediately belittles Jeff as an unfit parent.

Maggie seems to have the upper hand because she makes more money than Jeff, and she’s using Jenny’s accident as proof that Jeff can be a flaky father. Maggie and her father offer Jeff a large settlement, but he hesitates to sign the agreement. Jeff’s lawyer Janet Marion (played by Linda Powell) advises him to take the settlement because if the custody battle goes to trial, Jeff will most likely lose.

While they are embroiled in this custody battle, Jeff and Maggie are still living together (because he has no other place to live) but they take care of Jenny separately. One day, Jeff and Jenny are at a coffee shop, where Jeff has agreed to meet Maggie so that she can pick up Jenny to spend some mother-daughter time with Jenny. While waiting for Maggie at the coffee shop, Jeff is seen and happily greeted by one of his former classmates from college.

The former classmate’s name is Connor Gibbons (played by Eric T. Miller), who tells Jeff that he started his own comic book company, which was sold to a larger company that let Connor stay as the leader. Jeff tells Connor about his impending divorce and custody battle, and Connor offers Jeff possible employment at his company.

Jeff asks if Connor would be interested in reviving “The Grisly Kin,” but Connor adamantly says no. The best he can offer Jeff is a lowly entry-level job as an inker. Jeff doesn’t get too far in the conversation with Connor when Maggie calls Jeff. There was some miscommunication and Maggie went to the wrong coffee shop. Naturally, she blames Jeff for the mixup.

During this phone conversation, Maggie tells Jeff that her father has assigned her to oversee a project in Seattle, so she plans to move there with Jenny. Jeff is naturally upset by this news. He tells Maggie that he was ready to agree to the divorce settlement and agree to give Maggie full custody of Jenny, but now that Maggie plans to move to Seattle, he tells Maggie that he might fight for custody after all.

Is this a divorce drama or a horror movie? While they’re in the middle of this heated phone conversation, Maggie has been walking on some city streets. And then, she suddenly gets hit and killed by a SUV, which speeds off without stopping. The hit-and-run is so sudden, that it’s probably the only thing that comes close to being a jump scare in the movie.

The next scene is of Maggie’s wake at Jeff’s home, where Rivers bitterly snipes to Jeff that Jeff is lucky that Maggie didn’t have time to change her will during the divorce proceedings. Rivers then informs Jeff that he’s going to file for custody of Jenny. Jeff doesn’t want to argue about it during the wake, but he makes it clear that he’s going to put up a fight in this custody battle with Rivers.

At the wake, Jenny exhibits some strange behavior, when she takes ketchup-covered French fries and starts flinging the ketchup on a wall. Then, she smears her hands all over the ketchup. It’s obviously meant to look like blood smears.

Jenny then says, “Baby is painting like Daddy.” Jeff tells Jenny to stop what she’s doing. Jenny then yells at Jeff: “I hate you! I want my mommy back!” And then, she runs off into another room.

Meanwhile, a family portrait of Jeff, Maggie and Jenny, which is on display on a mantlepiece in the living room, catches on fire from some lighted candles. But the fire is quickly put out by Samantha, who suddenly appears with a fire extinguisher, as if it’s an everyday item around the house. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

“Separation” continues its downward slide into nonsense from there. Jeff ends up taking a job at Connor’s company and agrees to be an inker, even though Jeff is over-qualified for it. At the company, Jeff meets an eccentric British writer named Alan Ross (played by Simon Quarterman), who’s working on a horror comic book and likes to utter things such as, “This is darkness … Draw me the stuff of nightmares.”

Meanwhile, Jeff and Jenny start having nightmares where they see either a giant witch come to life or a ghoulish clown dressed in a black-and-white striped prisoner’s outfit. The witch doesn’t do much except crook her gnarly fingers. The clown can do crazy contortions and do things like run backwards on all fours. It’s very reminiscent of the Backwards Man character in the 2020 horror film “Black Box.” Whenever “Separation” can’t think of a creative way to resolve some issues, it just has a character pass out or wake up in a scene, as if that person just had a nightmare.

Jeff starts to have random hallucinations that you know are coming because everything on screen suddenly turns crimson red. He has these hallucinations in his home, on the subway and at work. Jenny has a sketch book that’s filling up with horror illustrations that she swears she didn’t draw. The movie tries to make it look like the ghost of Maggie could be haunting this family, but it’s an absurd red herring because the beginning of the movie already showed that something spooky was going on in the house before Maggie died.

Jeff’s co-worker Alan is a big believer in the supernatural, so Jeff confides in him one day about all the nightmarish things that he’s been experiencing. Alan thinks that the ghost of Maggie is behind these unexplainable nightmares and hallucinations. And so, Alan gives Jeff the psychedelic drug ayahuasca to take home with him so that Jeff can “punch a hole in reality and make peace with Maggie.”

Does Jeff take the ayahuasca? Of course he does. Because in a silly movie like this, the first thing you want to do to figure out what you’re hallucinating is take a drug that makes you hallucinate even more. There are parts of this movie that are so bad, they’re really laughable. “Separation” is also the type of dreck where there’s a scene of people falling out of the townhome’s attic through a glass window, and they end up on the sidewalk with no injuries.

“Separation” director Bell also directed the 2020 horror sequel “Brahms: The Boy II,” which was another awful and boring movie about a family haunted by evil spirits, with a creepy doll as part of the story. At least with “Brahms: The Boy II,” there was an origin story that clearly explained why this doll was the root of the horror happening in the movie. In “Separation,” the dolls and any horror entities that appear in the movie have no explanation for why they’re haunting this family.

Most of the cast members try to do their best to be credible in their poorly written roles, but it’s all for nothing because “Separation” is such an empty and pointless film in almost way. Most of Friend’s acting in “Separation” consists of looking confused or awkward. Brewer is the only cast member who hams it up during certain scenes in such an over-the-top way that it’s unintentionally comedic.

Just when viewers might think “Separation” can’t get any worse, the movie’s last 15 minutes prove that this rubbish was incapable of being salvaged. The mid-credits scene is also completely useless. “Separation” sinks further into a quagmire of idiocy until there’s nothing left but the stench of fried brain cells that had to endure the 107 minutes it takes to watch this time-wasting trash until the bitter end.

Open Road Films and Briarcliff Entertainment will release “Separation” in U.S. cinemas on April 30, 2021.