Horror Drama Comedy
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12th Jan 07
A motley group of sales workers on a motivational weekend find themselves fighting for survival when things turn grisly.
Work based team building days can be an utter nightmare. As someone who survived a three day orienteering event – with only snivel servants from the Inland Revenue for company – I feel uniquely qualified to make such a sweeping statement. Grim days indeed.
However nothing from that cursed experience compares with the grisly fate that befalls the sales reps from defence company Pacific Palisades in Chris Creep Smith’s new Brit horror Severance. Billed as The Office meets Deliverance, Smith’s sophomore effort starts out as a broadly cartoonish, amiable frightener before quickly segueing into something much harder and darker. A long day’s journey into a very, very bloody night.
The set up is a peach for sure, following seven workers from an international defence company on a corporate jolly to an exclusive Budapest retreat at the behest of their wealthy American company president. Among them are twitchy yes-man manager Richard (Tim McInnerney), nerdy accounts expert Gordon (Andy Nyman), the cynical Harris (Toby Stephens), cool-headed supervisor Maggie (Laura Harris) and wide boy stoner Steve (Danny Dyer).
Forced to make an early exit from their coach the disparate bunch quickly get lost, stumbling upon an unwelcoming concrete building that doesn’t resemble the luxury spa lodge they were expecting. Accommodation problems soon become the least of their worries though as it becomes painfully apparent that through 75 years of arming the world, Palisades may have engaged in some less than savoury practices. For out in the alien wilderness is a deadly enemy - out to wreak revenge on the company and its employees in spectacular and bloody fashion.
One of the more surprising, and pleasing elements of Severance is that – broadly comic tone of the opening sequence aside – Smith and writer James Moran opt to play things pretty straight. This is a decision that proves most effective when the threat begins to ramp up. Smith eschews deadpan quippery or ironic payoff lines to allow for much more realistic, human responses from his terrorised cast of misfits. This tactic enables Smith to leaven the intensity with some well timed moments of cheeky wit, including a funny Rashomon style sequence detailing what three members of the division think really went down in Palisade’s chequered past (Dyer’s is a Nuts magazine style tits n’ giggles fantasy quelle surprise).
There’s the lightest of comic broadsides aimed at the current war on terror scenario too – with a visual gag at the expense of company president George Sanders, which frankly brought the house down. I fully expect this reaction to be repeated when the film debuts at FrightFest on the opening Thursday. The decision to kick the festival off with this movie is frankly inspired – it’s unlikely that you’ll see a more satisfyingly entertaining crowd pleaser all weekend.
There are quibbles but they really are minor. There’s a little too many forced attempts to make everyone a type of ‘character’ which is understandable for economy but it means that you ultimately don’t engage in ways that you should or could had different choices been made. Some of the characterisation was a little cartoonish for my taste (with Andy Nyman doing the nerdy fat-ergo-he’s funny shtick that Nick Frost does in SOTD. In fact he looks so much like Frost that your average Saturday night punter will probably think they are one and the same).
But frankly I’m picking here. Besides Severance is not a film that sets itself up for any kind of intense scrutiny. It’s a horror comedy, aiming for as large an audience as possible. So the criteria is simple. Is it funny? Certainly, and even if you aren’t laughing out loud (it ain’t that kind of film) a wry smile is never far away. Is it horrific? Undoubtedly, and in a way that wipes the grin from your face when it wants to. Certainly gore hounds should not be put off by the 15 certificate. The BBFC is generally a more enlightened organisation about horror these days. I’m actually quite surprised at the rating – it certainly must’ve been something of a borderline decision
I must say a brief word here about the writer James Moran. The amount of young writers and directors who have debuted with a horror comedy has gone through the roof in the last few years – and for the most part they have been clearly unable to deliver the basics required from either genre. Moran proves that he knows his milieu well and he’s been fortunate to have an up and coming director like Smith realising his vision. This is only Smith’s second feature – but it’s a huge leap on from Creep. Anyone familiar with that film will be aware that when it comes to atmospherics and gore Smith really knows his onions. In fact throughout the film Smith and Moran’s handling of horror and comedy is adroit – never more so that in a brutal scene involving geeky Gordon that – for me – is the defining turning point in the film.
Although very British, Severance actually put me in mind of the kind of guilty pleasure straight to video trash so revered in this site’s Zombie Club pages. Naturally this is a good thing, good taste being not just the enemy of art but also the enemy of a decent horror film. The film wears its gleeful non-PC sensibility with pride (typified by an amusing opening sequence in which a couple of euro escort chicks – who look like a low rent version of the Hostel broads – get naked while trying to elude a crazed murderer (?) Sniggery and exploitative? Hell yeah! But this is a schlock horror film for chrissakes - and it’s refreshing to see the Brits doing this kind of thing without shame or embarrassment
Another strength of the film is that it only occasionally reminds you of other horror flicks and mostly doesn’t play the tedious blink and you’ll miss it, pick n’ mix homage game that gets the fanboys worked up but is a dead loss for anyone else. There are echoes of Raimi’s early cartoon splatter (especially in the closing stages which reach almost medieval levels of comedy violence) with Danny Dyer taking an onscreen shitkicking on a parallel with Raimi's manhandling of Bruce Campbell. In fact the only movie that popped into my head after watching Severance is so awful the filmmakers couldn’t possibly have deliberately referenced it – Greek sleazemeister Nico Materakis’ long forgotten The Zero Boys. This loopy take on the survivalist genre of the 80s twins Rambo gung-ho nonsense with Friday the 13th style stalk n slash aesthetics as a bunch of weekending jock dildoes and their idiot girlfriends take a leisure trip into the mountains and come up against a bunch of murderous rednecks. That I was reminded of this old clunker is penance for a misspent childhood watching shit films – no blame can be apportioned to Smith or Moran.
The casting reveals simple pleasures and is much starrier than this kind of material normally gets. Its fun seeing Richard Curtis regular McInnerny showing up in a horror flick and Toby Stephens obviously had a lot of fun in his role as Harris. As an aside Stephens is so pumped up in this movie he can barely walk and looks as though he’s been existing off a diet of pies since his Bond villain days. Pies laced with steroids perhaps? Weird. No matter, as he’s a hoot and gets his comeuppance in a spectacular, bloody and amusingly ironic fashion. Laura Harris (from 24) also does some good work in an underwritten final girl /Ripley role.
Funnier, pacier and classier than the fag-end of witless B-movie schlockery typified by the execrable likes of Evil Aliens, Severance is a frequently amusing, unashamedly gory, wholly entertaining trip best enjoyed with herbal and/or hop-based refreshment. Perfect tour bus viewing for your next team building away trip. Or maybe not.
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