The idea of "getting axed" is exploited for maximum double-entendre value in Severance, a grisly horror-comedy from the U.K. that has its tongue planted so firmly in its cheek that you half expect it to pop out the other side. Yes, heads (and, in one indelible bit, a severed foot) roll during the course of the "team-building weekend" embarked upon by seven employees of global weapons manufacturer Palisade Defence. ("We'll win the war on terror," intones the ebullient narrator of a corporate promotional video. "I certainly hope not," replies one savvy staffer.) Deep into the Hungarian countryside they go, en route to a supposedly luxurious resort. Instead, they find themselves waylaid at an eerily depopulated villa where someone — possibly a disgruntled former client — has a bone to pick with the Palisade powers-that-be. In the international arms business, it would seem, the return policy is a real killer.
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Directed by Christopher Smith, who also co-authored the script with first-time screenwriter James Moran, Severance doesn't beat around the bush: The movie opens with a flash-forward to its own frenetic climax, as a trio of soon-to-be-victims run for their lives through a dense forest, pursued by an unseen assailant and a shaky hand-held camera. The images will seem instantly familiar to connoisseurs of le cinéma du torture porn, only instead of the requisite shrieking fright music on the soundtrack, we get the Small Faces singing "Itchycoo Park," complete with its groovy assurance that "It's all too beautiful." No, Severance isn't your garden-variety torture porn; it slices and dices with a wink and a nod to the Economist crowd. It's the kind of movie that people who look down their noses at the Saw and Hostel franchises can feel okay about liking because, you know, it's a satire — the Dr. Strangelove of Taliban-era blowback. At least, that's what Smith seems to think, judging by another of his irreverent music selections: the WWII standard "We'll Meet Again," played over the end credits.
But unlike Kubrick's film, to say nothing of a whole spate of recent movies (including The Host and Land of the Dead) that have employed genre as a means of social criticism, Severance isn't a sustained work of imagination. Part of the problem is that Smith and Moran play fast and loose with the identities of the masked henchmen who spend most of the movie's running time thinning the Palisade employment rolls. Are they Soviet-era war criminals? Ceausescu loyalists from neighboring Romania? Or maybe a rival arms seller on a team-building excursion of its own? The vagueness is intentional — the point being that whoever the "bad" guys are, the "good" guys were probably the ones who militarized them in the first place — but after a while, it gives the movie a fuzzy feeling, like a spoof that hasn't quite figured out what it's spoofing.
Not that Smith and Moran are that much sharper when it comes to the Palisade faithful, who register less as actual characters than as character types of the sort one might find in a bad dinner-theater knockoff of The Office. There's Steve (Danny Dyer), the laid-back stoner-slacker with the devil-may-care glint in his eyes; Harris (Toby Stephens), the golden-boy sales champ; Gordon (Andy Nyman), the overly enthusiastic corporate cheerleader; Richard (Tim McInnerny), the odious upper-management tyrant; Maggie (Laura Harris), the office hottie; Jill (Claudie Blakley), the practical-minded wallflower; and Billy (Babou Ceesay), the token black guy. Fortunately, most of them are dispensed with rather quickly.
Severance is chock-full of nifty sight gags, like that severed foot being jammed into a small portable fridge, or the sedated body of its former owner being dragged out of a room while two of his co-workers sit on a nearby sofa, none the wiser. As a director, Smith (whose debut feature, the subway-set thriller Creep, was a modest hit overseas but remains undistributed in this country) has the sensibility of one of those single-panel comic-strip artists, like Gary Larson or Jim Unger, with a knack for deadpan absurdism and an appetite for the macabre. (You can also see the influence of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers and Sweden's Roy Andersson.) But when Smith's Grand Guignol tableaux are strung together, they lack any forward momentum. Some take inspired comic flight. The rest crash to the ground and, like so much else in Severance, go splat. Satire and horror make for bad synergy in this back-pay comedy.