If you could eliminate the portions of "Separation" between the opening and closing credits, you'd have an ideal horror movie. The animated titles have a series of unsettling clown-like creatures moving just enough to unsettle a viewer.
Whatever skulduggery these apparitions might commit pales in comparison to the way the filmmakers betray viewers by giving way to a live action movie that pales in comparison.
Rupert Friend plays a burned-out comic book artist and writer whose once popular series isn't currently paying the bills. His wife, Maggie (Mamie Gummer), is the breadwinner, while Jeff spends most of his time at their New York apartment sort of watching their daughter Jenny (Violet McGraw).
Whatever skill Jeff has with a pen is almost certainly superior to his parenting. While he shows off his past drawings to his fawning babysitter Samantha (Madeline Brewer), Jenny plays in a dark attic with dolls Jeff made.
Before you can say "child endangerment," Maggie files for divorce. It's no wonder her rich father, Paul Rivers (Brian Cox), is offering large sums of money for Jeff to give up custody.
It's a bad sign when you find yourself siding with the antagonists this early in the film. Casting a consummate performer like Cox in some ways amplifies the problem because he has a way of elevating any project that features him.
If the custody battle weren't demoralizing on its own, Jeff, Jenny and others start dreaming about apparitions that resemble Jeff's old creations. These resemble the drawings during the credits, but for some reason they aren't scary now. Thanks to computer imagery that betrays its digital origins, the things that go bump in the night are more irritating than frightening.
It doesn't help that director William Brent Bell ("The Boy," "The Devil Inside") freely lifts jump scares and other moments from better movies. In some cases, he can't seem to determine what is worth swiping. One of the ghouls in "Separation" imitates the "spider walk" from "The Exorcist," which was one of the less effective moments from that film.
Now, the original walk seems like a stroke of genius because it's infinitely creepier to see a flesh-and-blood performer perform the walk. Because the pull of gravity and other things that happen with practical effects, the digital stroll only succeeds in reminding viewers they could be watching a better film right now.
"Separation" also views horror fans and comic book readers with contempt. Simon Quarterman plays a pretentious writer who starts collaborating with Jeff on a new series. You can tell he's dodgy because he speaks with a snooty British drawl while Friend and Cox convincingly retool their accents to sound like Yanks.
If your only exposure to comics came from the people in this film, you'd share Paul's contempt for Jeff and everyone else involved with them. Apparently, screenwriters Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun have missed out on how people like Marjane Satrapi, Alan Moore, Daniel Clowes, Art Spiegelman, Garry Trudeau or even Stan Lee and Jack Kirby have used a medium that has been unfairly derided to tell sophisticated, vital stories. Sadly, none of these talents were available to rectify a horror film that has difficulty scaring a child Jenny's age.
74 Cast: Rupert Friend, Brian Cox, Madeline Brewer, Violet McGraw, Mamie Gummer, Simon Quarterman, Eric T. Miller
Director: William Brent Bell
Rating: Rated R for language, some violence and brief drug use.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes