In my review of his debut effort, Creep, I wondered if writer/director Christopher Smith's second feature would rocket him into the a list much the way Descent rocketed its director, whose Dog Soldiers was a good but not spectacular first feature, into horror fame.
I've finally got around to seeing Severance and, unfortunately, it isn't the break-out flick I'd hoped it would be. It is a competent, solidly made film. It expands the number of characters the director must juggle, takes him out of the easily controlled confines of the tube sets of his first flick, and generally shows a director that is getting better with each film. But, sadly, what it won't do is blow you away.
Severance follows a group of British and American arms dealers. These aren't badass Lord of War types, but white-collar office drones: the kind of folks who file the Lord of War types' expense account requisitions. These cube dwellers are sent of into Hungarian forests as part of a paid retreat/team building exercise. Their bus stalls out and they end up hiking to what is supposed to be luxury lodge. Instead, they end up at an abandoned structure that is, sadly, next to a mental hospital used by Eastern European powers to contain war criminal types. Apparently, the various nasty wars caused by the disintegration of the Soviet Union left Eastern Europe with enough psycho war criminals that a special facility was called for.
Before we can get to deep into the characterization of any of our office drones, we subject them to the predations of a small cadre of kill-happy ex-genocidal troops and the blood starts flowing in earnest.
Now there absolutely nothing wrong with Severance. It looks good, the characterizations are well handled, the comedic touches are welcome and not overbearing (except in one instance were an utterly unnecessary joke tips too far into the realm of farce – you'll know the one I'm talking about the second you see it), and the blend of black humor and gore occasionally reaches the level of brilliance. For example, there's one scene involving one of the office workers getting his leg mauled in a bear trap. The repeated and ineffective efforts to get him free are both cringe inducing and sickly comical. There are also so some wonderfully creative grace notes. The most notable of these is a scene in which three of the employees relate three different legends they've heard about the lodge they're staying in. Each story is shot in a radically different style: the first is shot as a silent film and borrows details from Nosferatu; the second tells the story about the war criminals interned nearby and is shot in a hand-cam verité style; and the last story, a goofy sex fantasy, is shot in the soft-focus cheese style that '70s era pornographers thought looked classy.
Unfortunately, the end result is something less than the sum of its parts. I feel kinda bad about this, 'cause my last review sorta damned Chris Smith with faint praise and this review turned out the same way. Smith seems to me to be a creative, talented, and smart filmmaker with a surprisingly broad knowledge of film behind what he does. Yet, his works remain more promising than fulfilling. Severance isn't a bad flick. If you're looking for a rough little bit of horror action with a touch of humor, then you could do a lot worse then to check out Severance. I end this review as I ended the last one, wondering whether Smith's next movie will be the one that puts him on the A-list.