Sunday, October 18, 2015

Severance

English filmmaker Christopher Smith has been establishing himself as one of the most diverse directors working in the genre in recent years. I've already reviewed Black Death, his movie about witch hunters in medieval Europe. His other titles include Creep, about creatures attacking people in the London underground; Triangle, about terrorized yacht passengers; and Get Santa, a family comedy starring Jim Broadbent as the Jolly Old Elf. As a filmmaker, Smith seems determined to avoid repeating himself, choosing projects completely different from his past work.

Severance (2006) is Smith's second feature film, and as expected, it's different from anything else in his filmography. Essentially, it's a parody of all those Backwoods Brutality movies from the 1970s, in which civilized folks found themselves under siege in the wilderness and were forced to descend into violent savagery to survive (it also helps if the villains are inbred hillbillies, the more mutated the better). Examples include Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, and Southern Comfort.

Severance works in the same manner as Cabin in the Woods, by sending up the conventions of the genre at the same time it's exploiting them and turning them on their head. The movie has its fair share of blood and guts along with some suspenseful, thrilling moments, but it also has a sly, ironic sense humor and a tongue firmly planted in cheek. The movie also takes a satirical jab at America's military-industrial complex, showing how very easily weapons can be trained on those who profit off them.

There's nothing groundbreaking plot-wise about Severance. A bunch of people go into the woods and get picked off in horribly gruesome ways by a killer or killers. Thankfully, instead of teenagers, the movie gives us employees Palisade Defense, a weapons manufacturer that sells guns and munitions all over the world. These particular employees - including boss Richard (Tim Mcinnerney), American Maggie (Laura Harris, ironically a Canadian in real life), and stoner Steve (Danny Dyer) - are on a sales tour of Eastern Europe when they embark on a team-building exercise in Hungary. They end up lost in the woods, mistake a derelict building for a resort lodge, and before too long, find themselves being hunted by a mysterious foe who knows the area better than they do.

The situation in Severance is mostly played straight. These people are fighting for their lives. The humor comes from their reactions as well as strict logic being played out. Richard tries to maintain a sense of leadership, but since he's a coward and not very good at thinking on his feet, his idea of leadership is to rehash corporate lingo about teamwork, even as the bodies start piling up. Another character gets decapitated, but after earlier insisting to another that a severed head can continue to think for another two or three minutes after being separated from its body, he dies with a smile on his face, knowing he was right.

Some moments are also funny and intense. Gordon (Andy Nyman), the nerdy guy most happy to toe the company line, gets his foot caught in a bear trap. He is understandably upset about this development. As he's screaming, the others try to pull the teeth of the trap apart, so he can slide his leg out, but all they end up doing cutting off his leg by accident. Steve then puts the limb on ice, stuffing it as best he can into a fridge on the group's tour bus. He seems more annoyed that he has to take all the beer out and let it get warm.

The movie also gets some mileage out of its background. These characters work for a company that sells weapons around the world, and now they find these same weapons being used against them. Early on, Jill (Claudie Blakley) hypes her non-lethal land mines that pin people to the ground instead of killing them, and Richard says, without a trace of irony, that American and British government people are on the board of their company and there's no way they'd be involved in anything illegal. These characters treat guns, rockets, ammo, land mines, and other munitions like commodities, but once these weapons are used against them, they learn awfully quickly there's a big difference between selling guns and using them. The real world is a much harsher, more violent place than all those corporate videos would have them believe. It's a trope of the genre - the civilized confronting the savage real world - given a modern, appropriate update.

Severance also has some nice little surprises along the way that might not blow your mind but are amusing. Jill has an encounter with a spider that has an unexpected reaction on her end. Gordon is seen goofing around on the diving board of a dirty pool filled with dead leaves; we never see him fall in, but the next time we see him, he's walking back to his room, soaking wet and miserable. There are even some genuine character moments. Richard gets the chance to redeem himself and be a leader after he makes a false step, and there's Billy (Babou Ceesay), set up as the token black guy but who gets the chance to take charge. The movie also gets a hilarious moment where it looks like it should be over, the survivors walk out of the house and ... I wouldn't dream of spoiling it.

If there's a down side to Severance, it's the fact the threat as revealed is not particularly interesting. The background is kind of cool - insane war criminals from the nut house seeking revenge on the company - but once we see these guys, they're kind of disappointing, grungy-looking soldier types who like extras from a Steven Seagal movie. Learning what we do about them, it seems unlikely the normal characters would have any sort of chance against them in a straight-up fight. At least they get the best credits ever - flamethrower killer, head-squish killer, and knife-in-butt killer.

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