Severance (2006)

Severance poster (click for larger image)Reviewed by Debi Moore

Starring Toby Stephens, Claudie Blakley, Andy Nyman, Babou Ceesay, Tim McInnerny, Laura Harris, Danny Dyer

Directed by Christopher Smith

Back in the 1960’s pop music was forever changed as a result of the “British Invasion.” Bands like The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks crossed the Atlantic and took America by storm. They appropriated the rebellious rockabilly and rhythm & blues sounds of Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Elvis and changed them into something new that kids the world over embraced with a fervor never before experienced. Now, some 40 years later, we’re seeing a similar assault from across the pond on the horror genre. UK filmmakers Neil (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) Marshall and Edgar (Shaun of the Dead) Wright have breathed new life into the werewolf and zombie subgenres, and with Severance Christopher Smith has given slasher and torture fans something up-to-date and creative to celebrate.

For whatever reason Severance is being billed primarily as a “horror-comedy.” Sure, there are several funny moments, but they are more of the dark and subversive, make you squirm variety than the ha ha, that’s so hilarious type. I guess British humor is still considered a novel marketing tool for American audiences in some quarters, but I found Severance much more creepy than comical, and it’s too bad it’s not being promoted as such. It also touches on social and political issues ripped right from today’s headlines, not unlike the songs performed by those innovative Limey mop-tops of years gone by.

Severance (click for larger image) All right, enough about that; what’s Severance‘s storyline? If it’s a slasher, there must be a bunch of hot adolescents in danger somewhere, right? Thankfully, that’s not the case here. What we have instead is a group of corporate weapons dealers on a team-building weekend retreat in Eastern Europe. They consist of the boss, George (McInnerny); his assistant, Billy (Ceesay); and the Top Five members of Palisade Defence’s European sales team. Things go wrong almost immediately when our motley crew’s bus driver refuses to take a detour through the woods, instead opting to return to home base and leave his passengers to fend for themselves. While George and Billy bicker over how far an inch on the map is in terms of miles, Steve, Jill, Gordon, Harris, and Maggie buck up and start trudging off toward the “luxury lodge” they’ve been promised awaits them just down the road. It doesn’t help matters much that stoner Steve (Dyer) has chowed down on a baggie full of magic mushrooms, but his visions and paranoia go a long way toward setting the tone and cluing the audience in on what they can expect around the next bend.

When our team arrives at what they assume to be their home for the next couple of days, they are shocked and disappointed by its state of disrepair. But these Brits (and the token American girl) are nothing if not resilient, and they go about making the best of a bad situation. After all, if they can help fight the perilous war on terror, they can certainly put up with this spot of inconvenience. Following a rather disgusting turn of events that results in the determination that eating “found” food is perhaps not the best idea, some members of the group begin speculating on the history of the lodge, complete with beautifully filmed flashbacks. Was it in fact an old mental institution? Or was it a former holding facility full of wrongly accused political prisoners? In both scenarios Palisade figures prominently as an agent of cruelty and death, and the idea of a survivor who harbors a grudge against the company and all of its employees haunts the team as they brace themselves for what’s sure to be a long night.

As you might expect, once we’ve gotten to know the players a bit and made our own choices of whom we want to see live and die, the carnage commences. The surrounding woods are rigged with bear traps, deep pits, and a few other choice tricks of the trade. The big fellow with the big knife that we saw in the film’s opening sequence is back with a vengeance, and the viewer is treated to an array of eviscerations, amputations, and decapitations. The final act of Severance should satisfy even the most die-hard gorehound, but the film never dumbs it down or takes its audience for granted. It’s smart and sharp every step of the way.

Severance (click for larger image) Most of the actors, while popular in Britain, will probably be unknown to American audiences, which is how I prefer it in slasher films. No need to bring any preconceived notions or personal baggage along for the ride. Harris, who plays Maggie, the American mentioned earlier, did seem a little familiar to this reviewer, but it wasn’t until the film was over and I looked her up online that I realized she had been a fairly major player in Season 2 of 24 (as well as appearing in Dead Like Me, which I have on DVD but haven’t had a chance to watch yet). That old adage about seeing someone “out of context” definitely applies here. Recognizable or not, every actor fit his or her role perfectly with not a single false note to be found. It’s so refreshing to watch something where the cast members are involved because of their talents, not their looks or affiliation with a TV show that’s produced by the same company as the film — not that all American movies are like that, but certainly enough are to warrant the comparison.

And what about director Smith? Did he capitalize on the positive buzz he received for his debut feature, Creep? The answer, resoundingly, is yes! Actually, he does a lot more than capitalize — he shows growth and intensity that will certainly only increase with time and experience. A few of his shots come close to breaking new ground, but to expound on them would spoil the experience. One long tracking shot through the lodge even made me stop and rewind to make sure I didn’t miss a cut somewhere (I didn’t). DP Ed Wild and editor Stuart Gazzard deserve special mention as well, along with the kickass soundtrack, for keeping Severance‘s mood and atmosphere spot on for its entire running time.

So, what does the future hold for Severance, our little slasher that could? It will be playing at various festivals during the spring season with a limited Stateside release scheduled for May 18th (if the IMDB can be trusted). Certainly soon after that the DVD will be available. If you’re a slasher fan, this is shaping up to be a banner year what with Severance, Hatchet, Wrong Turn 2, and The Tripper (just to name a few) all coming out within several months of each other eager to put their own spin on what most agree is a tired, trite topic. Severance provides some pretty big shoes for the others to follow in, and I, for one, anxiously await the Yanks’ response. In the meantime I’ll just keep rocking out to my K-Tel Super Hits of the 60’s CD and reliving the glory days. “It’s all too beautiful, it’s all too beautiful … It’s all too beautiful, it’s all too beautiful …”

4 out of 5

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Debi Moore

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