Dir: Christopher Smith. UK. 2006. 95mins.
The latest in a seemingly endless cycle of newBritish horror films, Christopher Smith's Severanceis slick, funny and determinedly superficial and derivative. The screenplay(co-written by Smith and James Moran) is leavened with sub-Viz humour, satirical asidesabout office politics and the arms trade, and self-parodicjokes. Smith, who earned plaudits for his debut horror feature Creep, has assembled a capable cast andorchestrates the bloodletting with a certain flair.
Nonetheless, there is asense throughout of a talented director running up hard against a dead end.Just as his protagonists - first seen fleeing through the woods - struggle toget away from the killers, so the film-makers face an equally tough fight toescape genre cliches.
Severancehas several clear thematic overlaps with rival horror picture, Wilderness, which will also be releasedtheatrically in the UK in August. This is yet another yarn about anill-assorted group of Brits stuck in the woods and being preyed on by ahomicidal bogeyman. Both movies received UK Film Council backing and both have"respectable" production companies behind them (Wildness was made by Ecosse while Severance comes from Michael Kuhn's Qwerty).
On one level, the British horrorrenaissance is encouraging. Young directors are making fast-moving, visuallystriking, lowish budget films with an obviouscommercial appeal, and not just at home (witness the current success in the USof The Descent). Nonetheless, it ishard to see how this renaissance can continue unless film-makers come up withideas at least marginally more original than sticking Brits alone in the woodswith killers on their tracks.
Severance'stheatrical prospects seem rosy, although it and Wilderness may maycannibalise each other's audiences in the UK in the short term. That said, at previewscreenings Smith's comic shocker has been eliciting wild enthusiasm from someof the UK's mass market 'male' magazines, and the fact that it has secured a 15rating is bound to increase its reach among the all-important teen audience.Ancillary should also be good.
Beyond home - it played inthe Piazza Grande at Locarno - it was one of the fewBritish titles in the Cannes market in May to capture buyers' imaginations, andUS rights were recently snapped up by Magnolia. It is far more slickly madethan Wilderness (part of whose appealwas its engaging amateurishness) and is also genuinely witty in parts. But itsjoshing, sarcastic humour ultimately risks becoming one of its biggestproblems: when Smith is playing for laughs, it is impossible to feel sympathyfor the benighted characters as they are decapitated, burned alive or flayed.
The earliest scenes are thebest. A coach full of disgruntled British office workers are driving into thebear-filled Hungarian woods for a team-building weekend. They're from PalisadeDefence, an international arms dealing firm. The manager Richard (played withengaging pomposity by Tim McInnerny) is given tomaking Ricky Gervais-like speeches. "We need to take onwership of the weekend... I can't spell success without you,"he tells his team as he leads them to a godforsaken lodge in the middle ofnowhere.
There are some genuinelyhumorous touches as the group interacts. The office renegade Steve (Danny Dyer)is more interested in magic mushrooms and spliffsthan team building. The chief salesman (Toby Stephens in supercilious mode)can't hide his contempt for his boss. It's when they discover a gold-cappedtooth in a meat pie that the team members begin to suspect that something isseriously amiss. Smith uses music and sound editing very inventively and eventhrows in a dream sequence and an enjoyable, Murnau-stylesilent movie spoof.
The visual gags don't abate(for instance, Steve trying to wedge a severed leg into a tiny fridge or asevered head briefly contemplating life without its body), but the longer thefilm goes on, the more scrappy and unpleasant it becomes. The tongue in cheekhumour can't hide the essential sadism of the endeavour. Nor does the plottingreally stack up. The balaclava-clad bogeymen in the woods seem to be on leavefrom the Chechen or Balkan war. We're never quite clear whether they're killingfor the sake of it or if they really do have a grievance against the armsdealers from the West.
The shock tactics grow increasinglynumbing and repetitive and, as in so many recent British horror films, there isan almost complete lack of emotional depth. Nor does Severance have that sense of the uncanny that made (for example)Neil Marshall's The Descent seem likemore than just standard genre fare.
By the final reel, allsubtlety has disappeared and we're simply left with some Brits and a couple ofHungarian escort girls on the run from some Eastern European rent-a-maniacs.
UK Film Council
Isle Of Man Film
N1 European Film Produktions
Dan Films Production
Edward R E Wild