Severance / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | April 19, 2007 | Comments ()
Well, leave it to the Brits, I suppose. After Simon Pegg rejuvenated the zombie subgenre with Shaun of the Dead, and after Neil Marshall (The Descent) offered up the scariest horror movie in years, Christopher Smith (Creep) brings new life to the slasher flick, not necessarily by ramping up the violence quotient, but by injecting actual humor into the story and personality into the victims. So, instead of characters with elephantine breasts and pea brains that we can’t wait to see fall on a Jackyl chainsaw, Severance offers up victims we care about before snuffing out their lives in a reasonably gruesome, darkly comic manner. And, of course, Severance also proves the old adage that there is nothing sexier than a smart blonde wielding a shotgun. Or a machete. Or even a rock.
In addition to light doses of droll British humor (it’s not raucous or giddy, like Shaun — this is a darker movie, though they both have similar edgy energy) Smith also makes a clumsy, mostly unsuccessful, attempt to introduce some political subtext to the film, which is about a group from the sales division of Palisades Defense, an international weapons conglomerate, who are headed to a luxurious resort for a weekend teambuilding exercise. On their way, the chartered bus runs upon a felled tree, and the Eastern European bus driver refuses to take an off-road detour. After an argument ensues, the driver leaves them in a Hungarian forest, where they slog through the woods and find an abandoned cabin they believe is Palisades’ owned. It is there where the division boss, Richard, decides to make camp for the weekend, so that they might do some orientating and bridge building (“I can’t spell success without u. And u. And u.”) The rest of the cast includes a bumbling accountant (Andy Nyman), a stoner salesman (Danny Dyer), a rigid sales executive (Toby Stephens), the smart, no-nonsense blond supervisor (Laura Harris), and the group’s socially conscious Velma (Claudie Blackley).
Severance meanders through the first half of the film, slowly developing characters and setting tone, and doesn’t pick up much speed until around the half-hour point, when the employees begin to tell speculative stories about the origins of the lodge , which are told through amusing flashbacks, one of which pays homage to Nosferotu, in one of the many Tarantinoesque references in Severance (nods to Deerhunter and Dr. Strangelove are among them, so you know were not talking about the standard dead-teenager fare here). But, because Severance is both British and concerns a group of co-workers, comparisons to “The Office” are inevitable and not entirely inaccurate, though the humor is far from Gervaisian; it’s more like Student Bodies filtered through Colin Firth and a orientation packet. Still, the co-worker dynamic does go a long way toward fleshing out the characters and making them sympathetic— it’s always harder to watch someone die once you get to know them. Imagine, for instance, watching Oscar Nunez be incinerated by a land mine.
After a few false starts, there is, at least, a Greg-Daniels flavored paintball game, which alerts the group that someone might be after them when the accountant steps on a bear trap and loses his leg, a scene that is as squeamish as it is hilarious, making it difficult to laugh through gritted teeth. From then on, the mood darkens and the bloodshed begins, as the Palisade weapons are used against the employees with gruesome aplomb. You can probably imagine the arsenal of weaponry that terrorist slashers with an agenda have available to them with this conceit (flamethrowers!), though nothing is as funny the company CEO’s attempt to use a missile launcher to wipe out the baddies, only to discover that the weapon seems to have something against jet airplanes.
It’s considerably more clever and well done, but the death scenes in Severance are as creative and furiously exuberant as anything I’ve seen outside of Final Destination films, though these are extra fun because they are both intense and take the piss out of Splat Pack. The movie works slightly better for those with an astute eye for slasher-flick conventions, especially Christopher Smith’s conclusion, which turns the final-girl trope on its head in an awesomely unexpected way — I won’t say anymore, except that it involves a fair amount of cleavage.
Severance is unlikely to turn too many heads, and it doesn’t reinvent the slasher pic the way that Shaun of the Dead did for the zombie flick, but it is a welcome development for a subgenre stagnating in blood, aggression, and ripped flesh. Thankfully, it’s as entertaining as it is grisly.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.