Following his rather average feature debut with London Underground chiller ‘Creep’, I can’t say as I was awaiting Christopher Smith’s second film with anything like baited breath. Factor in a cast led by current Brit lad-flick king Danny Dyer & a decidedly comedic tone, & I have to say my expectations were low indeed. Imagine my surprise then, when it turned out to be not only an enormous improvement on ‘Creep’, but also one of the most entertaining & confident blends of comedy & horror in recent years.
A group of people who work together for the Palisade Arms Company travel to Eastern Europe for a weekend of team-building exercises. Deep in the woods they find a tree blocking the road, & the local coach driver is unwilling to take a diversion round the back roads, & leaves the group to walk the rest of the way on their own. Arriving at a remote lodge they settle down for the night, but increasingly begin to feel that they’re not alone. Before long, strange & violent incidents start to happen, & it looks increasingly clear that many of them will not survive the weekend.
Comedy horror is a very difficult mix to pull off well, with the two all too often cancelling each other out or simply leaning too far to one extreme or the other to properly satisfy - and yet when the mix works (as in ‘American Werewolf’, ‘Evil Dead 2’), it’s a uniquely satisfying blend. A perhaps inevitable point of comparison for ‘Severance’ is that other recent Brit horror comedy, ‘Shaun of the Dead’, although similarities are fairly superficial – ‘Shaun’ is more of a comedy that happens to include (albeit lovingly) a horror narrative. ‘Severance’ on the other hand, is quite unapologetically a horror film, but one which also happens to be funny. It’s an important distinction to make, as ‘Severance’ is a much darker & more intense film.
It doesn’t start off like that though – the first half hour or so are pretty much in comedy territory, but then as the narrative starts to kick in, the tone slowly & surely turns darker until we wind up in full-on horror mode – albeit horror with a wicked sense of black humour. The advantage of this approach is that it gives us time to get to know & like the characters with little clue as to what awaits them – meaning we actually care when things get nasty. We really shouldn’t care, as on paper they’re a pretty clichéd bunch of caricatures – the ineffectual boss, the ice-queen Yank, the druggie waster, the geek, etc. But the cunning scripting & clever casting (including great turns by Blackadder’s Tim McInnery & Laura Harris of The Faculty & 24) keeps twisting things & introducing more depth & subtlety than you’d expect. Performances throughout are spot-on (even if Danny Dyer seems to once again be playing basically himself, he does it so well I can’t complain too much), although it’s perhaps something of a weakness that you can’t quite picture this group working for an arms company together, however since it’s no more implausible than anything else that happens in the film, I’ll let it slide.
The script by James Moran & Christopher Smith is actually the secret weapon of ‘Severance’. In addition to the surprising character touches, it consistently surprises & wrong-foots the audience, with things never quite playing out how you’re expecting them to. The set-pieces are frequently sabotaged by jokes, but it’s to Smith’s immense credit that the humour in the horror scenes never lessens the tension. To top it all off, the film has a cunning satirical & political edge (sample dialogue: “Members of both our governments are on the board. They’re not going to do anything immoral.”), as our heroes are attacked by the weapons their company built & supplied in the first place. The war on terror is invoked, but from an unusual angle in that working for an arms company, the characters are all earning their livelihood from supplying the weapons for the war. As one character remarks when being told that soon they will win the war on terror, “I bloody well hope not!” Perhaps the most audacious (& politically barbed) moment comes with a frankly insane joke involving a rocket launcher, which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for you.
Whilst the film is very funny, this doesn’t come at the expense of the horror. There are a couple of moments when Smith tips his hat to the greats (including a neat Trauma-referencing POV shot of a head being decapitated), plus some beautiful extended flowing shots & cunning plays with spatial relations, meaning the film manages to look better than ‘Creep’, & also maintain a higher level of tension. It’s also pleasingly violent & gory, including a pretty nasty leg severance, the aforementioned decapitation, some bloody beatings, & more; when one actor is credited as “knife-in-butt killer”, you know you’re watching the right kind of film. In fact, the violence & gore (which pushes its UK ‘15’ certificate) is yet another way the film plays with expectations, as its comedic (& sometimes surreal) first half hour dupes you into thinking it’s going to be relatively tame.
Having not expected too much, ‘Severance’ totally surprised me & left me feeling nothing but goodwill towards it. A big step forward from ‘Creep’ in its supremely confident nailing of a tone that is almost impossible to pull off well, it marks Christopher Smith out as a talent to watch & I’m really looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next. Genuinely funny, properly suspenseful & with a great sense of fun masking delicious subtexts, this is the best horror-comedy (as opposed to comedy-horror a la ‘Shaun of the Dead’ or ‘Monster Man’) I’ve come across in years. Better written than ‘Dog Soldiers’, & funnier & scarier than the much-hyped ‘Slither’, if it’s not quite ‘An American Werewolf in London’ or ‘Evil Dead 2’ level great, a lasting cult following nonetheless seems assured.