2007Director: Christopher Smith
Cast: Danny Dyer, Laura Harris, Tim McInnerny
nother Bloody Office Outing” reads the tagline to Christopher Smith’s latest film, Severance. It’s a brilliant come-on suggesting wry British humor, office satire, and ironically copious amounts of gore. But unlike the film’s most obvious influence, Shaun of the Dead, which played its disparate genre elements off of one another to achieve a whole new classification of filmmaking (the rom-zombedy), Severance is merely undercooked goulash made up of fractured bits of cinematic dalliance. Smith’s intent is certainly inspired and some of his flirtations with horror, physical comedy and satire are imaginative and successful. But sadly (and believe me, as an office-drone weaned on Evil Dead and “Fawlty Towers,” I can safely attest that few were rooting for this movie more than I was) the end result is too convoluted and self-nullifying to be fully enjoyed as either art or escapism. It’s more like the cinematic equivalent of a bad DJ’s mash-up of Rob Zombie, Coldplay and David Brent.
After a gory and sexploitative introduction, the audience meets the sales team of Palisades Defence, a multinational weapons corporation that is sponsoring a weekend team-building retreat in the Hungarian wilderness. When a tree blocks the road to their designated cabin, the team is forced by their humorless, thickheaded boss (Tim McInnerny) to trek through an Eastern European forest filled with bears, booby traps and, apparently, psychos (hasn’t the former Soviet bloc suffered enough at the hands of Western horror directors?). Having finally reached the supposed destination, this merry band of arms-dealers finds not a spacious resort as promised, but a small, dank hovel whose only signs of recent habitation are a hastily scrawled welcome note and an ominous-looking meat-pie.
In these early scenes, Smith successfully cultivates a creepy vibe that suggests a fear of something palpable yet unknown; one employee finds a curious calcium deposit in the meat-pie, mysterious files are uncovered next to an anatomy-class skeleton, and a shadowy figure appears at a second story window leaving behind neither ladder nor rope. Uniquely haunting and unnerving, this is the stuff of classic horror. But regrettably, the film never hits upon a consistently tense mood because the suspense is constantly disrupted by slapdash attempts at comedy. And where other hybrid horror flicks like Slither and Shaun of the Dead culled humor by positioning idiosyncratic yet believable characters into embellished horror situations, Smith relies chiefly on predictable archetypes and boring sex jokes.
It also doesn’t help that the cast contains six of the least charming Britons ever assembled, led by freewheeling office clown Steve (Danny Dyer, whose performance can only be described as Britain’s answer to Dane Cook, America’s most vacuous comic). Meanwhile, the rest of the players do little more than maintain said archetypes that seem to have been inspired not so much by work at an office, but by watching “The Office” (which might be tolerable if it weren’t for the screenplay’s dearth of funny material). But perhaps the root of the film’s comedic failure lies in the fact that a weapons manufacturer is hardly fertile breeding ground for light office satire.
Although this decision provides opportunities for some half-assed political commentary, the gravity of the characters’ occupations downplays any situational humor that might arise out of their doomed team-building excursion. Most employers deal in relatively uncontroversial goods and the humor of a successful office satire stems from our identifying with characters who work equally soul-sucking yet morally neutral jobs (like the ones at Wernham-Hogg/Dunder-Mifflin or Initech). The employees of Palisades Defence, however, only inspire sympathy for the devil.
The third act is a reasonably exciting collection of chases and killings that includes a very tense landmine sequence and the goofiest decapitation this side of Apocalypto. But with the eerie mood all but dissipated by misguided attempts at humor and social critique, it’s hard to appreciate these few memorable scenes when they could have gone to much better use in a less meandering movie. While it’s a novel idea to blend workplace comedy with slasher-pic theatrics, Severance proves that genre-bending is a tenuous business that should only serve as natural means in telling a good story (or at least telling a few good jokes). Smith and fellow screenwriter James Moran are so caught up in their own stylistic juggling act—groping at only the most superficial elements of our favorite satires, comedies and horror movies—they fail to inspire the sneers, laughs and screams that are so tirelessly pursued here.
Severance is currently in limited release.
By: David Holmes
Published on: 2007-07-12