By Neil Norman
I never thought I would describe a film with the unusual high concept pitch of Friday the 13th meets The Office, but Severance, the second horror feature of director and co-writer Chris Smith, is all that and much more. Delving into the subgenres of Horror-Comedy and Run for your life Slasher film, Smith gives us one of the more clever Horror films to come out in a while.
The tone of the film is set with an interesting pre-credits sequence in which we get many of the standard Horror elements: Half naked girls, entrapment, and yes, even bloody murder by some unidentifiable creep with a giant knife. Smith sets the scene for what is about to come in an ingenious way, that through a Tarantinoesque use of structure actually makes more sense later on in the film when you see the whole picture.
The story starts as we join a group of co-workers as they travel by bus through Eastern Europe to a company sponsored, team-building, motivational weekend retreat. All of the "Office" archetypes are there. They all work for the Palisades Defense Company, an international Arms Manufacturer. We meet:
The Quirky Bossman Richard, played by Tim McInnerny
The Alpha Male Harris, played by Toby Stephens
The Yes Man Billy, played by Babou Ceesay
The Hot Chick that everyone in the Office wants to do (Maggie), played by Laura Harris
The Geeky Eternal Optimist Gordon, played by Andy Nyman
The Frumpy Girl Jill, played by Claudie Blakely
The Rebel Steve, played by Danny Dyer
The ensemble cast is talented, funny, and comprised of some recognizable British actors, although most of us in the States might be seeing them for the first time. One of the interesting things about this film is that you (rightly) suspect that most of these endearing people will die a foul death, but you can't really determine who it will be until it happens. Dyer's drug-munching (he eats magic mushrooms and smokes a spliff in the loo on the bus, setting himself up for a rude awakening when the mayhem starts) playboy Steve is the apparent protagonist and audience favorite. It’s possible that his independent nature and rebellious ways might be the only thing to enable him to break out of the corporate mentality long enough to save his ass.
The plot thickens when the bus driver refuses to take a different route after a felled tree blocks the road. After winning the argument (great scene in non-subtitled Hungarian, which leaves the audience as in the dark as the characters are) with the doormouse Steve the Boss, he strands the office party on the side of the road and takes off with the bus. Bossman decides that they will hike through the woods to the luxury lodge, much to the chagrin of some employees who are already thinking of quitting and taking their severance package and getting the hell out of there. If only they were so lucky.
The group finds the "Luxury" lodge, which would only be considered luxurious if you were a hobo, and try to make the best of the weekend. Eventually they figure out they are being watched and begin to freak. An outstanding scene where they try to determine the history of the abandoned lodge leads to many theories. Alpha Male Harris tells a horrific ghost story about an abandoned Lunatic Asylum (complete with old school, silent era, intercut footage of the crazies taking over the nuthouse) just to scare everyone. Frumpy Jill goes into the true backstory which, in an interestingly new spin makes the bad guys old war-crazy veterans of the Kosovo conflict. This gives the story an interesting political slant. The warmongers are actually getting killed by their own weapons. Next, Steve the Hero gives his version with a funny sex fantasy. After the origin revelation, the spoof comedy adroitly turns into a tense survival of the smartest thriller.
There are many great things about this film. It is hilariously funny, has good gore effects for a low budget indie, and has great building and diffusion of tension throughout. The best thing about it in my eyes is the manipulation of the audience by the director with respect to common Horror convention. Smith leads you one way and then cleverly twists your attention through the use of well placed sound after the cut or characters acting in other ways than you expect them to. He leads you to think things will happen one way then changes the momentum and direction with comic effect. When the director surprises you over and over again it really helps to add to the aura of uncertainty and helps you empathize with the characters. Christopher Smith puts you in the film and horror and tension result. One great example of this technique is with the mousy Jill and her nighttime encounter with a common household creepy-crawly pest. She delivers one of the best movie screams I have heard in a while, but it is not in response to the stimulus that you think it will be.
Check out Severance. It is one of the best Horror flicks of the year and just might be one of the most quick-witted comedies as well.
Neil Norman is a freelance writer and a graduate of the University of Central Florida. Neil also works on independent film productions.