You can’t say there’s much plot to Christopher Smith’s “Severance”—a group of defense-industry salespeople, stuck in a dilapidated joint somewhere in Eastern Europe after the bus transporting them to their company’s lodge for team-building exercises leaves them stranded, is threatened by maniacally murderous stalkers, and that’s all there is to it. Sure, there’s a half-hearted attempt at satirical relevance in the fact that these are, after all, arms merchants who get, in a quite literal sense as it turns out, hoist on their own petard. But that strain doesn’t really go beyond the cheekily sophomoric (most notably in a great, goofy gag about a rocket launcher near the close). It’s about the same level of socio-political commentary one might have found in one of the better Roger Corman efforts of earlier times.
And that’s what “Severance” basically is—a modern equivalent of a Cormanesque genre exercise, aping the most ubiquitous of today’s slasher-movie plots. Why, then, does it work, when virtually all its siblings fail so miserably?
One reason is that the targets here aren’t your usual bunch of randy teen-agers, but a group of older folk who mightn’t be any more deeply drawn (and may be equally stereotypical) but come across as more full-blooded, if you’ll pardon the pun (and better acted). There are team leader Richard (Tim McInnerny), a nervously imperious fellow reminiscent of Steve Carell’s Michael from “The Office,” and dubious gopher Billy (Babou Ceesay), as well as the staff—over-enthusiastic dweeb Gordon (Andy Nyman), druggie Steve (Danny Dyer), slick cynic Harris (Toby Stephens), principle-minded Jill (Claudie Blakley), and Maggie (Laura Harris), who’s as close as the group gets to a blonde bombshell. None can be described as richly layered, but they’re certainly more engaging than the empty-headed adolescents one usually gets in such flicks.
A second is a quick sense of humor, which again might not be terribly sharp but is far superior to the labored tongue-in-cheek jokes one usually encounters in such exercises in mayhem.
The third is that though it’s not exactly discreet in the matter of gore, it doesn’t go the more-repulsive-than-thou route that seems to have become obligatory nowadays. Certainly a pre-credit kill (which links up with the big finale) involves a shower of blood, but it’s shot with some reticence. A sequence involving a bear trap and a severed leg isn’t precisely subdued, but it goes more for tension and black comedy than mere revulsion. Even moments involving blowtorches eschew straight-on immolation. Even a “Hostel”-like moment begins with a sight gag and ends less gruesomely than you might anticipate. And while the final confrontation involves plenty of knives and body blows, the gritty cinematography keeps the violence dampened down.
Finally, “Severance” is saved by the fact that it’s unpretentious—despite an apparent weapons-industry link to all the nastiness (though, to be perfectly frank, the explanation for what’s happening remains at best oblique), there’s hardly a political drum-beat of indignation here. Too often pictures like this attempt to justify their low-brow genre aspirations by suggesting some profound message is lurking underneath even if it’s murky and confused one, but that’s hard to pull off convincingly. Happily, this movie doesn’t even try.
“Severance” is unpretentious in technical terms, too, looking every bit the poverty-row production it is in today’s terms. But Ed Wild’s cinematography fits perfectly, and you have to complement composer Christian Henson and the sound team for their effective use of “gotcha!” intrusions at the necessary moments.
In the sea of blood and gore rolling down theatre aisles nowadays, this cheeky, scary horror farce proves that the comic slasher movie isn’t dead yet.