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Foreign Spotlight: Severance

Severance is the sophomore feature film effort from British filmmaker Christopher Smith, who debuted in 2004 with the gory monster on the loose in the London…

Severance is the sophomore feature film effort from British filmmaker Christopher Smith, who debuted in 2004 with the gory monster on the loose in the London underground flick Creep (which starred sexy German actress Franka Potente). Here, Smith trades the claustrophobia of London’s subterranean rail system for the heavily-wooded Hungarian countryside, where a group of arms salesmen from the Palisades Defense Corporation are on a team-building weekend, ready for activities like paintball, orienteering, bridge-building, and other activities that will help them learn to work better together, and totally unprepared to battle for their lives against a machete-wielding rouge mercenary (mercenaries?).

This is the latest in a series of survival-horror films that have emigrated from Europe to the U.S. in the past few years. This mini movement (or beginning of a larger movement) in the horror genre started with Neil Marshall’s 2002 Dog Soldiers which revolved around a military unit that crosses paths with a pack of werewolves while on a training exercise in the Scotland wilderness. Last year there was Marshall’s brilliant follow up film, The Descent, about six women on a caving expedition who end up being hunted by a group of cave-dwelling monsters, and Fabrice du Welz’s Calvaire (The Ordeal), a bizarre (and surprisingly light on blood and gore) gem about a singer/performer on the run from hillbillies in the Belgium countryside. This year has seen the DVD release of filmmaker Michael J. Bassett’s Wilderness, centering on a group of juvenile delinquents being hunted by a psychopath (and his pack of attack dogs) while camping on a British island. More is on the way, with Dog Soldier’s 2: Fresh Meat already in the works (but without Marshall in the director’s chair).

Severance falls into the survival-horror category, but is it really much more of a comedy than a horror film, or any of the other horror films mentioned above (with possibly the exception of Dog Soldiers which had more than a few laugh out loud moments of over-the-top violence and one-liners). This is not to say that Severance is without scary moments. Smith does an excellent job creating a creepy, forbidding atmosphere in the secluded lodge (Or is it an old mental asylum? Or an old POW camp for war criminals?) with the usual horror building blocks: stalker/killer’s POV shots; a split-second appearance of a masked man peering through a window; moments intended to make the audience jump as a slightly nervous character is surprised by a friend (intensified by a burst of music); the killer moving through the background, unnoticed by the other characters in frame. Even though it’s pretty standard horror-film stock, Smith handles it very well, and it is all leading up to the greater purpose of the film – to make the audiences fall out of their chairs laughing as the cast is dispatched one at a time in progressively more brutal ways. And Smith does a brilliant job of coming up with punctuating the special effects work with nice little touches of irony (I don’t want to say too much about this because it would be a shame to ruin any of the film’s jokes). 

Compared to Shaun of the Dead (which it will inevitably be compared to), the 2004 British zombie comedy that achieved a cult-status stateside, Severence is much darker, and has much more of an edge. Shaun was more of a zombie sitcom, funny and gory, but not funny because of the gore. Severance starts off funny, with great chemistry between the cast, filling in the various office archetypes – the hallucinogenic-consuming office goofball, the boss that refuses to admit he’s wrong, the girl at the office everyone wants to sleep with, the company yes-man, etc. Smith takes time to develop his characters, and gives his actors plenty of screen time. He also explores the comedic potential of things like sexual harassment, polite racial discrimination, and political correctness in the workplace. But when the blood and gore hits the fan is when it really starts to get funny. At its heart, Severance has a very dark, twisted sense of humor – this is definitely not for everyone’s taste and some audiences might find it exceedingly disturbing and offensive, but really, the scenes of violence are the funniest scenes in the movie. It’s all fun and games till someone steps in a bear trap, then it’s fucking hilarious. Severence is brilliant ‘splatstick’ comedy, and a well-deserved treat for everyone out there with a really warped sense of humor. And did I mention the topless Russian prostitute with machine gun?

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