If you wanted to be glib, you could describe ‘Severance’ as ‘Dog Soldiers’-lite. Whereas Neil Marshall’s film had an army unit besieged by werewolves in a ramshackle farmhouse, Severance has a group of office wallahs on a team-building weekend (paint-balling, orienteering etc) holed up in a run-down lodge and defending themselves against a masked antagonist.
You could also point out similarities in theme and imagery to other notable horror films of the last decade: the isolationism and fractious inter-relationships of ‘Cabin Fever’ and ‘My Little Eye’, the Eastern European locale of ‘Hostel’ and its sequel. But Christopher Smith’s film - his second feature after ‘Creep’ and a major improvement on that piece of work - has more than one ace up its sleeve.
First of all, it achieves that rare quality for a horror-comedy: the horror is unsettling and the comedy is genuinely funny, and both exist cheek by jowl without the balance ever tipping too far on either side. Witness the brilliant scene where the characters discuss the history of the lodge: when one postulates it was a turn-of-the-century lunatic asylum, Smith throws in a hysterical sequence of flashbacks in true silent movie style, all title cards and b&w expressionism; this is superceded by an account of the out-of-control soldiers who were billeted there after massacring civilians, visually illustrated by grainy, jumpy footage that could have been culled from CNN. It’s a daring, slap-in-the-face juxtaposition and highly effective.
Secondly, Smith’s characters are not the interchangeable teenie victims or over-sexed twenty-somethings who normally populate this kind of fare; they’re low level management types who work for an arms manufacturer. This is Smith’s most brilliant conceit: the film takes on a darkly satirical coloration when you realise that the set pieces are expositions of the use of weapons. Indeed, the pay-off (intricately set-up in what seems like a confusing opening sequence) is a fabulous raised middle finger to the guns ‘n’ girls ethos of many an exploitation flick down the years.
Smith also flips the birdie to the prevailing political climate, holding the ‘war on terror’ mindset up to the cold light of satire. In keeping his villains masked (ie. faceless) and more or less devoid of identity or motive, he fashions an allegory for contemporary times. A fearless scene - so boldly done that you feel guilty for laughing - has an attempt to fight back go hideously wrong, a heat-seeking missile completely missing the bad guys and instead bringing down a passing jet liner.
‘Severance’ - like George A Romero’s ‘Land of the Dead’ - is a horror film with a political subtext. It’s gory, funny, cutting and clever. It also has balls.