I generally dislike slasher movies, but I also generally dislike arms dealers, so a slasher movie wherein a group of arms dealers gets murdered presents a moral conundrum for me.
Luckily, Severance is also a comedy, and, like most frat boys and deranged supervillains, I love to laugh. So on the whole, I give it a bloody, hacked-off thumbs up, because it somehow manages to be funny while also doing a lot of killing.
Also, and I think this is important, it doesn't turn into torture porn or a cinematic internal anatomy lesson. While I understand that these are now popular forms of entertainment, I find them no more compelling than mistaking a shard of broken glass for a contact lens or eating an aluminum-foil hamburger.
Severance doesn't go the Hostel route, and for that, I salute it. Rather, it goes in a sort of Shaun of the Dead way, only a little less goofy and a little more slashy.
Severance begins as all great films do, with two hot Eastern European women falling in a ditch and then stripping down to their underpants. But the opening is deceptive, for this is not simply a remake of Emanuelle Brings Freedom to the Former Soviet Bloc. Instead, it's an important piece of social commentary on the way that giant corporations have violated the rights of insane killers around the world.
The Palisades Defence Corporation has sent its sales force on a "team building" weekend to Hungary or Romania (they're a little confused about this), where they hope to create "a home run for freedom and a time out for terrorism." Unfortunately, their bus breaks down, stranding them in the scary woods.
They respond to this by ingesting psilocybin mushrooms, fantasizing about sexual intercourse and creating a positive work environment for the purpose of reimagining and productizing their goal structures. Meanwhile, they find that they have become the target of at least one, and perhaps several, post-communist Freddy Krueger wannabes.
Slasher movies basically only need a setup, and then the story writes itself. But plot isn't the draw in these sorts of films. (Hint: Some people get killed, and some survive!) Rather, what makes Severance run is a keen sense of scripting. My dear friend O. Peculiar noted that the film included every joke that he wanted to see.
Such jokes include, but are not limited to, scenes of people accidentally urinating on corpses, accidentally eating human pie and accidentally getting killed by landmines. Ha! Funny stuff.
But mostly, the funniness comes from the funny scripting of funnymen James Moran and Christopher Smith, a couple of young Brits who understand that there's a difference between slavishly following a formula and slyly paying homage, and then opt for the former, but do it with some irony.
The other thing that works about Severance is its knowing cinematic sensibility. When the salesfolks are trying to figure out why they're being hunted and/or killed, they tell a series of ghost stories. These are enacted in a style that perfectly casts their time and mood: One is a story of World War I-era madness, shot in jumpy black and white. Another is a Stalinist fable with blacked-out eyes and a jerky, hand-held style, and the last is an erotic fantasy that looks like it was rejected by Cinemax After Dark for being too professional.
The cast of unknown B-listers and BBC stalwarts knows how to work with this material, giving it just enough goofiness to be pleasant, and just enough screaming and dying to be commercially accessible to apocalyptic religionists. Standouts include Danny Dyer as the whore-mongering drug addict who is strangely unafraid of bears, Laura Harris as the hot American whom everyone wants to love in an adult manner, and Andy Nyman as the office suck-up who learns that "team" is "meat" spelled backwards, sort of.
With its smart casting, sharp scripting and thoughtful filming, Severance has everything it needs to be a successful small movie. Strangely, it's not getting a big release from the studio, and it's only being rolled out in select cities.
I find this hard to fathom, because it does what it does perfectly, even if what it does isn't the sort of thing that earns blockbuster money. I think that if the distributors had advertised it as appealing to the Shaun of the Dead crowd, they could have done well. This is confirmed by Severance's Internet Movie Database entry, which lists as keywords for the film: "call girl," "bazooka," "marijuana," "urination scene" and "exploding airplane." If that can't fill a cinema with sophisticated moviegoers, I don't know what can.