Halloween is a special time. It is the one time of year when everyone gives of themselves. What they give can be anything from candy to a scare. We thought this October, we here at Mania would give you 31 Horror Films for the 31 days of October. Now, many of you will know these films. Some of you, may not. Get ready for 31 days of Horror Films that will run gauntlet from scary to campy, from horrific to down right ridiculous. Happy Halloween from Mania!
Horror films don’t have much of a sense of humor these days, now that nihilistic intensity and gratuitous gore are back in vogue. As far wiser men than I have noted, the genre reflects the unease of the era from which it arises, and “grim and messy” seems right in keeping with our 21st century zeitgeist. So when a film like Severance mixes the omnipresent bloodletting with marvelous deadpan wit, it comes as a welcome change of pace. Director Christopher Smith bills the film as a cross between The Office and Deliverance, which captures the concept but not the specifics. In many ways, it’s no different from a standard-issue Friday the Thirteenth entry, except that instead of clueless teenagers, the victims are a posse of corporate drones out in the woods for a weekend of mandated team-building. Their numbers include the usual workplace clichés: an incompetent manager (Tim McInnerny), a toadying yes-man (Andy Nyman), a slick weasel on his way up (Toby Stephens), and a few sensible worker bees just trying to salvage what dignity they can. The cast each fills their respected roles admirably, though with minimal embellishments and a strict adherence to stereotype.
That alone merits little attention, however. The twist comes with the company they work for (a major arms manufacturer with ties to both the American and British governments) and in the location chosen for their retreat — the mountains along the Hungarian/Romanian border. Here in the ruins of the Eastern Bloc, the capitalist victors can truly enjoy their spoils. The company’s head honcho (David Gilliam) has purchased a luxurious hunting lodge for the exclusive use of his employees, complete with cold champagne and eager Russian girls flown in sans underwear for the weekend. The retreat serves as an excuse for the plutocrats to dance on Lenin’s grave, bringing their semi-willing lackeys along to worship the almighty dollar with them amid the rubble of the hated enemy.
Nobody on the trip speaks the local language and the bus driver assigned to ferry them to the lodge quits in a huff after the main road is blocked. Some bad map reading and a bit of alpha dog woofing later, the team arrives at the lodge… or at least a lodge. This one seems a little more rustic than promised, however, and the Russian hookers they ordered are nowhere to be seen. Instead, it houses comrades of an entirely different nature: ex-Soviet Cossacks driven insane by a lifetime of killing and now staking out the nearby woods as their personal turf. The trees are booby-trapped, the game trails are monitored, and the lunatics are all armed to the teeth — courtesy of the very ordinance their new targets have spent a lifetime selling.
Let the irony-laced comeuppance begin.
Smith keeps the proceedings simple and direct, using his subtext to provide the requisite distinctiveness, and instead concentrating on the little details. The dialogue is tart and reasonably clever, relying on situational humor and the audience’s presumed familiarity with the various Dilbertesque figures on display. Severance mixes that with an increasingly fearsome amount of violence, as the crazies in the forest start putting the company’s health care plan to a serious test. Blending those two halves together was much more common back in the days of the Scream franchise, but even then, it took some savvy to pull off well. Smith finds the proper mixture right from the start, allowing the bloody black humor to elevate what could have been another tired old slasher scenario. The shocks are troubling at times, to be sure, but also contain surprisingly sophisticated laughs which never tumble into the inappropriate. Several key moments should find a place of honor among horror film lovers (the bear trap gag will likely get all the press, but a second sequence involving a sniggering reference to Marie Antoinette has an even better pay-off). Though the satire demands that the protagonists suffer for their sins, it delivers the message while still allowing us to sympathize with their dilemma.
Severance needs to keep that balance at all times, for without it, it might as well consign itself to direct-to-video hell. Its strength lies not in the scenario it posits, but in its attention to the specifics, and in the way it discovers something new to say with them. As a send-up of the workplace, it’s fairly uninspired, and as a horror film, it works only because Smith is a good technical craftsman. But put them both together, and it becomes smart, energetic, and even a little special: a Cold War postmortem that shades the triumph of the West with the bloody mess we seem to have inherited. Severance closes its proceedings with a tip of the hat to Dr. Strangelove, a film miles out of its league, of course, but certainly occupying the same basic family tree. By keeping such inspiration in mind, this little B picture goes a long, long way.