Separation (2021)

MAY 2, 2021


Don't get me wrong, the pandemic has been awful; the sort of thing future writers will use for hacky time travel stories ("What if we went back and gave that guy a hamburger so he wouldn't be tempted by a goddamn bat?"). But there have been a few perks to the whole thing: people have used the (forced) free time productively, taken up new hobbies, gotten in better shape, whatever. And for me personally? I have reached a point where a major new horror movie can come out that I know absolutely nothing about. In fact, I only heard of Separation a week before it opened, when I was looking at the theater's advanced showtimes to try to get a ticket for their revivals of the Fast & Furious movies (which I failed to do).

See, normally I'd be sick of the trailer, probably have gotten my mind made up based on early reviews from people whose tastes I know well enough to know whether or not it'll be something I'd end up liking... but I got to go in totally blind. I honestly can't even recall the last time I was able to buy a ticket for a movie I knew next to nothing about, as that's something I can barely even achieve at a festival anymore. And there are other movies coming along within the next couple weeks I'm just as in the dark about; even the big Statham action movie Wrath of Man is something I feel I only learned about a month ago. With the publicity machine for these things having to take a backseat (probably in part because there's still a chance another outbreak causes theaters to shut down again), us moviegoers get to actually be surprised for once. It's kind of nice.

That said, the only thing I did know about the movie is that it was directed by William Brent Bell, which meant reviews would likely mean nothing to me anyway. Except for last year's misguided (being generous) Brahms: The Boy II, I have enjoyed all of Bell's work, but that sentiment is not shared by my peers. To this day people are still angry about The Devil Inside's "missing ending that you had to go watch on the website," which is not what was actually happening there but after nearly a decade I've given up trying to explain to people that it was merely a poorly placed advertisement for their wannabe-viral site, and the film's abrupt ending was in line with most found footage entries (including, uh, Blair Witch Project - perhaps you're familiar?). So basically, if the reviews were rock solid, THEN I'd be worried!

Luckily (for me, not him, or the studio) the reviews are bad, and once again I'm here to defend Mr Bell's apparently very alienating brand of horror. I wouldn't say it's his best film by any means (should I be the first to rank him?*) and it's clearly been tinkered with (more on that soon), but it takes some wacky swings that I admired, so coupled along with my complete ignorance of its plot or even sub-genre, I found myself having a pretty good time with it. The title refers to a married couple in the standard movie partner dilemma: one is a workaholic and thus doesn't spend any time with their daughter, the other doesn't work at all and thus can't really provide for her. An opening "last straw" kind of argument leads to divorce, and during a heated phone conversation about custody (spoiler ahead if you're equally dim on details!) the mom jaywalks and gets run over, instantly killed.

So now the dad has to take care of the little girl alone, and before long freaky things start happening. The nature of them is of course part of the reveal, so I won't spoil them here, only to say that it harkens a bit back to the original (good) The Boy in that there's a twist to the proceedings that keeps the action to a minimum in order to work. This means that impatient viewers should steer clear, as not a whole lot happens in it (the R rating is basically just for language; the mom in particular loves the F-word) and most of the scares until the climax are of the nightmare variety. I had to wonder if I myself would be bored by it if I wasn't finding connections to the material; the dad (Rupert Friend) is kind of a "kid at heart" type who longs to resurrect a project he created in his younger days, which is something I went through myself and only relatively recently kind of gave up on it for good. So seeing a guy I could identify with go through the horror movie motions AND try to be a good dad suckered me in pretty easily, though that obviously won't be the case for everyone.

However, if you like puppets you should be into it! The aforementioned project was a (stop motion, I assume?) animated project featuring a cast of monstrous puppets, and the designs are quite good - think humanoid versions of the supporting cast of Nightmare Before Christmas and you'd be on the right path. He's got normal puppets of the characters that the daughter (Violet McGraw, because by law every major modern horror movie must have one of the kids from Hill House) uses as dolls, but they are menaced by full-sized versions that creep around, loom over their beds, etc. One is played by Troy James, the contortionist who has been making a name for himself using his impressive abilities to play other monsters that don't need to rely on CGI (he was the Jangly Man in Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark), and his big scene is truly unnerving...

...but partly undone because of Friend's near indifference to his appearance. For whatever reason, the actor barely ever reacts to the creepy things he sees; there's even an example in the trailer (which I saw for the first time today, as I wrote the review) where he just watches a portrait burn after a candle tips over on its own. Some are dreams and can be chalked up to dream logic I suppose, but it's an odd choice and kind of hampers a number of the scare scenes, of which there aren't many anyway. But as I mentioned, the movie was clearly retooled some, so it might just be an odd side effect of moving scenes around. There's a scene between him and their nanny (Madeline Brewer) that was either moved from its original position in the film, or simply had its setup deleted, because it starts with her saying that the daughter hates her now and yet there was absolutely nothing like that in the scene before it. Also, a couple scenes before it, she misread her signals and tried to kiss the guy, which you'd think would cause some awkwardness, but in this scene she's asking him to watch movies and get high (and surprised that he says no), which to me sounds like something that would have come before she made her move, not almost immediately after. Near the end of the film there's a montage of all the dad and the daughter's big bonding moments over the movie, and at first they're all ones we've seen but as the sequences goes on we see more snippets of scenes that were otherwise removed.

Don't get me wrong, the movie still more or less works anyway, but I can't help but wonder if panicked producers hacked away at it and switched scenes around in order to get a scare in every ten minutes no matter what. As is the film runs 108 minutes, so we're talking about 10-15 minutes longer than most movies of this sort, and it's easy to imagine a cut running at around two hours, for a horror movie where the "villain" is pretty passive and the scary movie plot takes a while to even get going. This might also explain why some scenes - like a bizarre hallucination scene in the park - go absolutely nowhere. Perhaps there was a followup scene that justified its existence, but got removed for being too talky?

Still, these things didn't bother me too much in the grand scheme of things. I knew after about a half hour or so that this would be the kind of movie I quietly enjoy rather than loudly keep trying to change people's minds on (like, well, The Boy and Stay Alive), and that's fine. With creepy ass puppets, DAD STUFF, and wacky plot points (the dad's comic book writer partner has him take drugs to communicate with the dead!) it was kind of just hitting my particular sweet spots and not even seemingly all that concerned with impressing a large audience, so for that I have to admire it (also, any time I get to use my "Puppet" tag you've already earned a few points). The pacing and plot reminded me of those 1970's "Paperbacks from Hell" I've been consuming ever since that book came out, where they're always kind of slow paced and weird but somehow entertain me all the same. If you're a fellow defender of Dead Silence (and, again, The Boy) you might find yourself equally charmed by its earnest hokeyness, but otherwise you can wait for Conjuring 3 or whatever.

What say you?

*The Boy, Stay Alive, Separation, Devil Inside, Boy 2. Still haven't seen Wer.


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