Surely destined to become a cult classic, Severance dishes up an unlikely combination of old-fashioned British comedy and sadistic Hollywood splatter. Imagine a loose remake of Hostel with the American backpackers replaced by the cast of Are You Being Served? and you'll have some idea what to expect from this bizarre but strangely satisfying movie.
If you're thinking, "What the hell?", that was my first reaction to the film. I'd heard Severance blended humour and horror (the UK poster image is a businessman with a severed head) but I wasn't expecting the humour to be quite as broad as it is - the main characters comprise a gaggle of British sitcom stereotypes who we first meet bickering with each other on a European coach trip.
These are the salesmen and women of the UK branch of Palisade Defense, an international arms company, and they're being rewarded for a successful quarter with a team-building weekend at the company's recently acquired luxury lodge in Hungary. The trip gets off to a bad start when bumbling manager Richard (Tim McInnerny) starts a row with the coach driver and the team is unceremoniously dumped by the roadside and forced to hike the rest of the way. Things get worse when they arrive and the "luxury lodge" turns out to be a dilapidated shack in the middle of the forest.
Richard's team is made up of cockney geezer Steve (Danny Dyer), beautiful but stand-offish Maggie (Laura Harris), arrogant Harris (Toby Stephens), cheerful Billy (Babou Ceesay), ingratiating Gordon (Andy Nyman), and politically correct Jill (Claudie Blakley). Tim McInnerny and Toby Stephens manage to ground their characters in humanity but some of the others, notably Andy Nyman, really could have been transplanted directly from a late 1970s sitcom.
Once they're at the lodge, Severance mutates, surprisingly effectively, into a gory slasher film cut from the same bloody cloth as Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes, but with a much stronger undercurrent of black comedy. Don't be fooled by the 15 certificate though: Severance is just as violent and sadistic as those other recent sado-horrors. The BBFC is being pretty lenient these days.
The horror stuff is nothing you haven't seen before and fairly unbelievable to boot (out-of-shape salespeople perform Rambo-style superheroics) but it's well done and it pushes the right buttons to get you involved. The special effects are sometimes cringe-makingly convincing. The sitcom humour is quite amusing once you get into the spirit of it. It grows funnier as the tone of the movie grows darker - there are a number of very big laughs in the later stages.
Severance is well cast and acted. The standout is Danny Dyer, who's memorably funny as an amoral, drug-happy Londoner. He did a good job in last year's The Business and he really comes into his own here. Tim McInnerny, best known as Lord Percy in Blackadder, is also excellent, creating an amusingly crap boss without making you think of David Brent. Laura Harris, an American actress who played a terrorist on 24, suffers from having the most under-written character (in British comedy, the pretty girl is never allowed to be funny!) but when the film changes gear, she makes a solid heroine.
Director Christopher Smith, who also co-wrote the script with James Moran, is becoming one of Britain's most interesting mainstream directors. His first feature, Creep, was an under-rated chiller and hopefully this more ambitious second film will put him on the map.
Incidentally, although it touches on the arms trade, this isn't a film with a moral or political message. There's no overt implication that the characters are getting what they deserve for selling weapons. They seem more like car salesmen than arms dealers. The business they're in is simply the excuse for all the stalking and slashing, and it's also the basis for a beautiful, sick joke towards the end of the film. We never even find out for certain who wants to kill the sales team, although it's hinted that one of the theories they float is correct.
The only message we take from Severance is the same one we took from Hostel: stay away from former Iron Curtain countries if you don't want to be horribly murdered. There's been a lot of debate this week about the numbers of migrants coming to Britain from Eastern Europe. I think the reason they're coming here is to escape all the psychopaths in their homelands.