The UK branch of arms company Palisade Defence is being rewarded for a successful year by being sent on a team-building exercise weekend in Hungary. Here they can expect to partake in various activities, such as paintball and building stuff that nobody cares about - all for the sake of improving staff relations. Their manager Richard (Tim McInnerny) however manages to balls things up when he gets into a heated argument with the coach driver, which soon sees them abandoned in the middle of nowhere, with no transport. Forced to travel by foot Richard and his team of six employees, Steve (Danny Dryer), Maggie (Laura Harris), Gordon (Andy Nyman), Harris (Toby Stephens), Billy (Babou Ceesay) and Jill (Claudie Blakley) eventually find their way to a crappy old lodge, which looks nothing like it’s described in their briefing. Things are about to get a lot worse when Jill spots a masked man outside her room, which prompts the team to investigate the situation, though their findings are bound to prove fatal.
The director of 2004’s Creep, Christopher Smith and James Moran with his script debut presents - to all outward appearances - a film that probably shouldn’t work half as well as it does, what with being set at yet another cabin in the woods, where a bunch of fools get stalked and slashed. Yet the humour which derives from each situation allows Severance to take on a different form; it’s not pretentious in any way, it doesn’t pretend to be better than anything else before it; instead it winks at the audience and in doing so it provides a lot of shameless fun. Indeed there is room for debate, so viewers wouldn’t be blamed in wondering about the social intents of the script, though quite frankly the premise itself is entirely ridiculous; in fact it would have felt right at home during the latter part of the eighties, along with a bunch of action movies immersed in Cold War politics. Although the war on terror and arms trades bare contemporary significance it all sounds grander than it really is. Casting all that aside it’s quite clear, at best, that Moran is more than likely telling us that office meetings and training exercises are really rubbish and they make us all feel like killing ourselves anyway. With that said there are still moments that feel like general padding, which never seem to go anywhere. Although there a few decent twists to aid the narrative in regards to the little seen terrorists and several conspiracy theories surrounding them, it plays out in a very ambiguous manner which tends to contribute toward an uneven balance in tone.
The script takes stock of everything that’s familiar to us within the horror field and as such it doesn’t shy away from the usual bouts of gratuity: young, naked European girls with large tits, depraved acts of violence and obvious set ups for individual stock characters. By following these basic guidelines it does feel quite formulaic, despite the bevy of witty humour and awkward situations laced throughout. There’s never a doubt as to who will survive at the end, with the murder victims being predictably checked off in order of character status. Still, the horror works on a unique level when presenting these moments. It becomes clear that after the first major death this isn’t going to be about just presenting gory acts that with each passing tries to outdo the previous, but instead giving them some kind of purpose within the narrative (no matter how far fetched that might sound), whether that means delivering a punch-line for an earlier set up, or injecting characters with a little more edge and having them commit selfless acts; not the perfect team-building exercise, then, but at the very least a series of bizarre character developments. These scenes work best with their darkly comic humour, which sees particular characters - try as they might - fail to help their friends by making matters several times worse. Just as much humour creeps its way subtly into several exchanges of dialogue; as is often the case they’re sharp and effective, never requiring the audience to figure out the jokes, but to chuckle at the stupidity of the respective character spouting it. Playing out very much like a sitcom it therefore relies on situational activities, including sight gags in relation to drug consumption for example. In regards to the latter it’s one of the few times when a gag proves to be a little predictable and mistimed: we all know the early reveal of magic mushrooms is going to set up some kind of silly scene that’s exhausted itself before it’s had a chance to offer anything above mildly amusing. But for the ocassional joke that doesn’t work there is often a great one around the corner and toward the end Moran gets more ambitious and daring with his comedy, with one scene in particular that’s bound to be remembered for quite some time. In addition Severance’s rather unconventional soundtrack adds an extra layer of twisted-ness, not only in terms of its haunting violin pieces, but more so its use of chirpy instrumental accompaniments, such as a nod to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a ditzy waltz or songs performed by The Small Faces.
But Severance is a very polished looking film, with every department being highly complimentary toward the overall product. Christopher Smith follows up Creep, with this admittedly better film, and establishes an aesthetically pleasing environment, given that it predominantly takes place in the middle of a forest; moreover his special effects crew do wonders in creating severed limbs, heads and so forth. Likewise the performances are all solid, even if just about every person involved is a typical stereotype that’s either been sorely underwritten or simply comes across as being annoying (the latter which may be the entire point). Given the circumstances of the run time it would be naive to expect much from so many characters and when you have seven in tow it’s always going to be tricky in fleshing them out to a satisfactory level, while keeping the film moving along at a brisk pace. That, however, doesn’t stop the film makers trying to get you to like or sympathise with them during a forty minute build up. Danny Dryer proves to be an effective lead and embraces his role naturally as Steve the happy stoner, while Tim McInnerny comes damn close to outshining him during several amusing exchanges. Only Laura Harris matches them in terms of screen time, despite having little to work with, until the final act when she suddenly undergoes a change of character, whilst Toby Stephens leaves behind a memorable performance, ultimately going out on a surreal high. Smith obviously wishes for us to care about the characters, and indeed they're all played very effectivly, but the shifting tone makes the task all the more difficult when you find that it all becomes quite numbing, thus leaving you feel indifferent toward them in the end.
Severance is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer varies throughout, coming across as being a little too soft during outdoor scenes, while detail is generally good elsewhere. It tends to struggle at certain intervals with black levels, which often aren’t deep enough, and I suspect a little contrast boosting at play also, which all in all leaves certain portions looking flat. In addition we have some aliasing, which isn’t particularly intrusive, but visible on occasion. The palette appears natural though, with good flesh tones and, err, green enough trees.
Audio consists of English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. With the film relying heavily on sound this proves to be a welcome addition. Christian Henson’s ominous score is given nice surround usage, while various ambient effects are carefully filtered from front to rear. The track becomes quite aggressive when the horror level is ramped up and panic ensues, while dialogue is firmly fixed centrally most of the time, presenting plenty of clarity.
The main feature on the disc is a Feature Commentary with Director Christopher Smith, Danny Dyer, Tim McInnerny, Andy Nyman, Babou Ceesay, Production Designer John Frankish and Writer James Moran. As to be expected this is quite a jovial track. The actors rib each other and have a generally good time, while we hear the occasional anecdote and production facts. Chris Smith often leads the discussion well and touches upon several references, including Kurosawa of all people and Kubrick. James Moran and John Frankish are extremely quiet throughout, only speaking a few sentences between them, which is a shame as we could have done with a lot more insight into the writing process and set designs.
The Making of Severance (33.48) is a standard and ultimately slight affair. It includes on-location interviews with the cast members, along with input from Christopher Smith, Jason Newmark (Producer), Jan Sewell (Hair & Make-up), John Frankish and Ed Wild (D.O.P.). And so we have various character discussions and talk on capturing the right tone for the feature, working in Hungary where the weather and insects took their toll, various stages of production and so forth. In-between discussion we have plenty of behind the scenes glimpses which show the usual tomfoolery and scene set-ups etc.
The rest of the features are merely EPK style fluff. “Being Danny Dyer” (5.18) is a pointless look at the actor; coming across more like a self serving ego trip of a production than anything else. He’s obviously a real lad and plays up to everything and everyone around him, which does get grating after a minute, let alone five. “The Genesis of Severance” (4.55) is pretty much a wasted opportunity, in which Screenwriter James Moran discusses the inspiration behind his script. This also features input from Smith and Newmark, with Smith continually informing us what additions he made to the script, such as the war on terror focus, which still gives us little idea of what Moran’s original script looked like and if anything strips away the original message which Moran informs us he wanted to convey. In hindsight I see my earlier criticisms being somewhat valid. “The Coach” (8.10) is a routine, often boring look about filming the bus scenes and taking it through its paces, up until the big crash sequence. There’s a little input from the Hungarian stunt team, but I honestly don’t know how they make this stuff look so uninteresting in comparison to dozens of other action or horror films that offer solid, extensive material on this kind of thing.
In addition to these there are eight deleted scenes to view, with optional commentary from Christopher Smith. Three of these relate to tripping out, which thank god didn’t make it into the final cut, because they’re generally unfunny and add very little to the overall feature, other than slowing it down. Most of the scenes here are very short, rarely going over a minute in length and most provide a little extra bonding between certain characters, but certainly not enough to make them worthwhile viewing. “Not So Special Effects” (4.45) predictably adds very little, given the run time while “Outtakes” - of all things – is really rubbish. I often find these to be fun additions to any set, and most of the time they’re even funnier than the film they’re taken from. Here we get some really crap outtakes, with either people having a slight trip or bits of paper falling from bus compartments. Really shouldn’t have bothered at all. “Palisade Corporate Video” (1.40) is the full video of what we see early on in the film, so you pretty much know what to expect there, while “Danny Fight Scene” (1.59) shows the actor rehearsing his big fight with a stunt man. “Alternate Ending Storyboard” (0.43) gives us a look at what would have made a better ending to the film and we naturally have the UK Theatrical Trailer in attendance. The disc is rounded off with an “Intro Sequence Animatic” (2.47) and an Easter Egg featuring a mock interview with Olga and Nadia (6.34).
Severance works solely on the fact that it’s just having a laugh with its material, which certainly allows it to breath a little more life into a genre that’s been, well, quite lifeless these days. There’s no denying that Smith’s feature has bundles of energy, helped tremendously by an amusing script, but it remains quite ambiguous through and through, with ideas of grander - dare I say pointless - schemes being tossed about to little avail. Still it’s well acted and makes for a pleasant 90 minutes viewing and it should prove to be enough for gore hounds seeking something different from their thrills.
The overall package is a little disappointing though, as somehow the makers have managed to make almost every aspect of filming appear none too interesting. There’s very little to learn amidst brief snippets here and there, which makes most of the additional material quite a chore to sit through.