by JAMES BRIGHAM
AND YOU THOUGHT YOUR JOB SUCKED
The horror-comedy (Transylvania 6-5000, The ‘Burbs, Cabin Fever) is my favorite film genre, small though it may be in the minds of the masses. There’s just something charmingly madcap about people rushing through nightmares with half-crazed smirks on their lips, battling monstrous foes in an over-the-fashion under a banner of knowingly droll commentary from the filmmakers. Characters from this specialty realm can be self-aware pieces of meta-fiction, frightened individuals legitimately reacting with shock-induced lunacy, or broadly painted purveyors of comic relief. Regardless of their protagonists’ exact nature, the end result of such films remains the same: the humorous elements heighten the scares and vice-versa. The British import Severance is such an entity, capably mixing workplace humor with shots of jet black comedy and a liberal dose of effective isolation horror.
Nowadays I try to minimize exposure to advance knowledge of any film I’m remotely interested in seeing. This helps me avoid the increasing use of spoilers, big and small, in TV spots and theatrical trailers and saves the best jokes, plot twists, and action beats for the initial viewing on the big screen. It’s a strategy that pays off in a handsome manner when a film turns out to not only be good, but several degrees removed from what I thought it would be about. With Severance, I was expecting a slasher movie set in an administrative building – a blend of the UK version of The Office and Halloween. What I got was essentially a variant on the time worn camping film.
Weapons manufacturer Palisade Defence has “rewarded” one of its sales divisions by arranging a team building weekend excursion to the mountains of Eastern Europe. A fallen tree limb in the road leads to the crew’s abandonment by their non-English speaking bus driver and a subsequent hike into the inhospitable woodlands. The team brings a wealth of office borne politics and emotional baggage along on the trip: petty jealousies, ego clashes, and coworker crushes. Said feelings amongst the men and women are played for both laughs and tears, alternating at semi-regular intervals.
Sexual tension and tempers rise even further once they actually reach the ramshackle lodge, a multi-storied cabin with low ceilings, secret rooms, treacherous floorboards, and mysterious baked goods left behind by previous occupants (to be fair, the pie was covered in tinfoil). This building has a storied history in their industry, with several wild tales of its origin being offered by the white-collar group. Each rumor is accompanied by atmospherically appropriate visuals. Insubordinate Harris (Toby Stephens) hints that the lodge was built on the former site of an insane asylum during a grainy black and white sequence with a government inspector who resembles Nosferatu’s Count Orlok. Jill (Claudie Blakley), the inventor of non-lethal mine traps, insists that the area was a prison for war criminals. Resident stoner Steve’s story is awash with funky music that bleeds into a depiction of the property as a nursing home for wealthy perverts in the 70’s, staffed with a bevy of curvaceous nurses.
What follows from there is an exploration of country living’s rustic charm; imagine The Great Outdoors by way of Friday the 13th. While that premise is absorbing, I would advise you not to go into Severance expecting a lot of outright guffaws – it’s not nearly as funny or as immediate as Shaun of the Dead, for example. The humor is typically low-key, dark in tone, and takes awhile to grow on you. Shaun’s accessible goofball antics appealed to a wide audience, if its box office intake and the opinions of my non-horror loving friends are any indication. In contrast, Severance rewards patient viewers and aims to entertain a smaller segment of an already small niche – this is a horror-comedy that takes awhile to build up steam.
Perhaps now might be a good time to examine your own humor sensibility when it comes to this type of film. Do you chuckle at the notion of a monster crafted from a man’s Vietnam flashbacks being mistaken for a raccoon, as occurs in House? Does Ash’s “Come get some” line still bring a smile to your lips? Then perhaps you’re in the right state of mind to appreciate Severance’s comedic style, best epitomized by one character’s smug reaction when a pet theory on beheading turns out to be true. Nothing serves as a better punch line to a joke than a severed head, I always say.
Like An American Werewolf in London (which it’s compared to by Total Film magazine on one poster), however, the action isn’t always played brazenly for yuks. The story progresses into grim and gritty territory on several occasions and evokes some real fear for the fates of the characters. Car crashes, bear traps, and bullet shots leave their toll on the plucky office drones as they scrape and crawl towards an exit out of this weekend from hell.
By the end, I was pretty satisfied with Severance; the cast was likable and the story had some fun twists and turns. The camera work was impressive and used well to eke out suspense and paranoia. A few of the gags could have used some tightening up to hit harder – a scene with a diving board builds up to deliriously high levels only to have a mediocre reveal, for example. But I did laugh out loud at several points, only to quietly gasp in shock later and then giggle before nervously anticipating the…you get the idea. Severance is a welcome entry in the horror-comedy genre and a movie well on its way to cult classic status.