Severance gets off to an amazing start — it plays like a The Office-style comedy of corporate manners crossed with a Friday the 13th-style slasher movie with encoded satire on U.S./British foreign policy and birds coming home to roost. It’s good fun throughout, although the clever horror tropes degenerate into standard-issue action-chase fodder by the film’s final reels.
The film’s opening flash-forward sets the tone, with a pair of Hungarian prostitutes on the run from someone or something out in the woods taking a dive into a pit trap out in the woods. They realize they may be able to fashion a sort of climbing rope out of their clothes — but only if at least one of them strips naked to the waist. Meanwhile, back up at ground level, a cowardly corporate team-building type is in full-on every-man-for-himself mode and eventually meets an unhappy end. (The topless prostitutes will eventually have better luck than the company man, but you have to wait for an hour and a half to see how their predicament turns out.) Flash back to a busload of hapless wage slaves working for U.S./U.K. weapons supplier Palisade Defense (motto: “We’re hitting a home run for freedom and a time out for terror”) heading through a remote area of Hungary (for some reason) to a company retreat. Discomfort ensues after the group gets lost — and gets the sense that certain of the locals may have an intensely personal bias against their employer.
Director Christopher Smith and his writing partner James Moran have a cheerful go at genre conventions, borrowing from the recent history of horror movies as well as the American subgenre of hillbilly psychopaths — in other words, the inspiration seems to be as much Hostel as Deliverance — before putting a black-comic spin on the proceedings. To nobody’s surprise, our group of slackers — none of them, save perhaps the blonde American played by Laura Harris, would exactly be described as a “natural leader” or “self-starter” — starts falling victim, one by one, to a largely unseen stalker.
Comparisons have been made to Shaun of the Dead, but Severance doesn’t share that film’s good-natured sense of humor. There’s much grisliness on display — including a lively decapitation and some excruciating business involving a bear trap — but I wouldn’t call it a satire. This film’s sense of humor shines when it defies, rather than indulges, genre expectations, as in a funny bit of misdirection involving a sizable spider. I also enjoyed the political backdrop, which recalls the glory days of ideological malcontent John Carpenter, who loaded genre films like Escape From New York and especially They Live with pointed commentary. Here the joke is on the U.K. and the U.S., with the dorkish footsoldiers of the military-industrial complex experiencing the resentment of the rest of the world firsthand.
It’s too bad there’s never a real narrative pay-off — toward the end of the film, Smith and Moran include a left-field scene that seems to mock a common post-9/11 urban legend about one way determined terrorists might bring down an airliner, and then they indirectly posit a Nazi-style final solution as a kind of ultimate evil without taking the obvious step of wrapping up their effectively chilly vision in narrative terms. After all the excellent build-up, the diaphanous climax is kind of a let-down — and it’s hard for me to believe I’m saying this about an exploitation film whose denouement actually features hookers with machine guns — but Severance is still fun from its start most of the way to its finish, and the occasional frisson of dread is made more genuine by a disquieting undercurrent of revulsion at the horrors unfolding in the real world. B-