William Brent Bell has directed four horror movies that happen to fall into vastly contrasting subcategories within the genre. So far, Bell has worked on a flick about a cheesy haunted video game (Stay Alive), a painstaking found footage exorcism vehicle (The Devil Inside), a gnarly modern werewolf movie (Wer), and a languid but surprising take on the classic creepy doll (The Boy). What can then be expected from something being billed as “a cross between Kramer vs. Kramer and films like The Sixth Sense and Mama?”
That description comes from Deadline, as they announce more casting confirmations for Bell’s fifth feature, Separation, a supernatural thriller that is currently in production. Mamie Gummer (True Detective), Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale), Violet McGraw (The Haunting of Hill House), and Brian Cox (Succession) have joined the movie. Separation was first announced last month when The Hollywood Reporter revealed Rupert Friend (Homeland) as the film’s lead. Bell directs from a screenplay by Nick Amadeus and Joshua Braun, who both wrote for The Anti Gravity Room. Braun has notably produced films like Creep and its sequel, and The House of the Devil as well.
Separation follows the recent divorce of Jeff and Maggie (Friend and Gummer), tracking their messy fight for the custody of their seven-year-old daughter (McGraw). Somehow, a regular nanny of the family (Brewer) and Maggie’s domineering father (Cox) also factor into this affair of “horrifying consequences.” In general, plot details about the project are kept close to the vest. However, an earlier statement from Bell that is attached to THR’s initial Friend casting announcement reveals that a strong core of emotionality drove his decision to bring Separation to life. Bell said:
“As soon as I read Nick and Josh’s script I knew I found my next project. It blends emotional, relatable family drama with edge-of-your-seat scares…”
Looking at his filmography, that certainly makes sense. Despite Bell’s penchant for experimentation as a genre filmmaker, exploring family dynamics is a particular constant for him. Discounting the ridiculous teen antics of Stay Alive, his more serious scary movies have painted distinctly messed-up portraits of such bonds to varying capacities.
The Devil Inside is a tried-and-true exorcism film that centers on a woman’s search for answers about her mother’s prolonged stay in a psychiatric hospital in Rome after the latter reportedly murdered three clergymen during her own exorcism. In comparison, Wer is a police procedural dissection of a werewolf’s brutal killing spree. Personal connection and lineage become vital in explaining both the lore and present-day plot of the movie. Finally, The Boy has Bell’s quirkiest depiction of family, by far. A nanny is hired by an eccentric English couple to look after their “son” Brahms, a porcelain doll with a strict babysitting schedule. Each of these films is then beholden to individual technical allowances and limitations in their respective subgenres in order to portray those promising premises, successfully or otherwise.
Unfortunately, The Devil Inside isn’t one that works. It has all the ingredients of a good if formulaic exorcism movie if not for the constraints of the found footage format that it utilizes. To Bell’s benefit, he is unafraid to go big with his scares, making the film’s persistent shock factor stand out. However, The Devil Inside is still dragged down by its visibly meticulous found-footage logic — with cameras that conveniently cover every angle while an omnipresent editor stitches the final product together — and this hinders the true immersion of the movie.
Meanwhile, The Boy troubles me not for its good performances and serviceable end twist that makes room for intrigue about the sequel STXFilms is working on. Instead, what saddens me is the lack of tension despite the film’s eerie, claustrophobic setting. Granted, the film is restrained with its spooks, highlighting that Bell is capable of working with observably beautiful cinematography in attempt to set the mood; something that his earlier films blatantly lack by virtue of their inherent action-based premises. Nonetheless, The Boy drifts into monotony as it follows its protagonist from room to room without delivering genuine thrills. The big reveal of the doll’s true identity at the end is what makes the movie memorable.
Wer is actually Bell’s most noteworthy film to date; one that consistently meshes dark fantasy elements with a gritty human sensibility. The heroes in this one are the easiest to root for — complete with consequential relationships — the movie’s carnage is unflinching and commendable, and the narrative is a more-or-less plausible mix of well-paced mystery and expected revelations. The question of family, history, and trust supplement the narrative in a generic but effectively believable way. Wer is narratively satisfying as it prioritizes both plot and character dynamics while delivering scares aplenty.
Bell has clearly not found the ideal mix of medium and narrative for every one of his films, but there’s potential to mine to elevate Separation into something more Wer-esque than the rest. His consistent inquiry into weird and distorted family drama has a place in the horror genre.