This English import succeeds due to a touch of humor, a good cast, and avoiding many of the traditional slasher tropes.
DIRECTOR: Chris Smith
CAST: Danny Dyer, Laura Harris, Tim McInnerny, Toby Stephens
MPAA RATING: R
Director Chris Smith has succeeded in creating a career out of approaching horror and its cliches by adding new storytelling elements that subvert audience expectations. He’s taken a new approach to the monster movie with CREEP, played havoc with the very idea of psychological horror in TRIANGLE and brought a new perspective to supernatural horror tales and horror stories about cults with BLACK DEATH. SEVERANCE is his entry in the slasher genre, using comedy and the avoidance of one of the most persistent cliches in slasher films to make a film that is funny, smart and slides a bit of very sly social commentary through in a way that serves the story instead of becoming a self indulgent act of preening preaching.
Instead of a pack of teens heading out into the woods for a weekend of debauchery in a “cabin in the woods,” SEVERANCE is about a group of employees for an arms manufacturer heading out to a newly purchased “luxury” lodge for a team building weekend, and as would be expected with any good slasher film set in a forest wilderness, they become prey for something sinister.
Right out of the gate, SEVERANCE makes clear that it’s intent is to take the things we’ve all come to expect from the slasher genre and give them a new twist. The characters and the cast are introduced as they’re riding a company owned bus to the lodge recently purchased for various company outings. This isn’t the usual set of teenagers under the remote control of raging hormones and bacchanalian social rituals meant to test and reinforce the limits of taboo. This is the cast of THE OFFICE, as they’re about to enter Camp Crystal Lake. Smith and his co-writer James Moran do a great job of laying out the story and characters in the first act by mixing in a generous dose of comedy taking aim at corporate culture, the mind numbing ridiculous of things like “team building exercises”, and the people in those situations who are unable to see the inherently ridiculous nature of the expectations modern conglomerates have of their employees. Good characters and some well written comedic moments succeed in making what would otherwise be boring exposition enjoyable.
The cast is made up of performers who’ve been associated with comedy more than horror, and it serves the story and the film well. There isn’t a bad performance in the film, as the entire cast seems to be relishing the opportunity to step a bit outside of what their normally remembered for and stretch their resume’s and abilities. Danny Dyer, Tim McInnerny, Toby Stephens and Claudie Blakely get the best lines, but without the rest of the cast playing off them as well as they do, the comedy would fall flat. It never does though, and that comedic aspect helps to make the characters likable and give the audience a group of people we can relate to. The first act does everything it should, and a little bit more, in laying the foundation for what’s to come in the rest of the film.
The second act begins creeping toward a slow build in suspense and here too, through a number of different means, it does a great job. One of the great aspects is also that the tension isn’t all completely derived in the same way a typical slasher film would. Some of the tension is built from the relationships between the characters and their interactions. It’s not just a bunch of jump scares or allusions to what might be outside and coming to get our merry band of employees. Those relationships and the tension that starts to arise from some of them all rely on the relationship each individual has with the company itself, and the fact that they are its employees. It’s a nice piece of writing, because it’s definitely saying something, but if any member of the audience didn’t sit down to watch a film that was trying to give them some kind of message, it’s still just as enjoyable, and the comedy still works well. It’s an extremely sly way for Smith and Moran to say what they have to say and never be preachy for a single second.
The third act gets down to the bloody business of being a slasher film. It’s one of the rare films that just might be able to satisfy just about all of the audiences that are bound to see it. It’s still funny in some moments, full of tension in others, and doesn’t abandon it’s overall theme, ideas or thesis in order to win the cheap thrill. It’s also got enough gore for the more hard core, gore hound variety of horror fan to be satisfied, but without being sadistic as well. The conclusion is able to wrap that all up in a way that doesn’t feel forced either. It does actually make sense given what we’ve seen in the film leading up to it, and the rest of the film earns it.
SEVERANCE isn’t going to be making many lists for best or favorite horror film or slasher film. However, it is a satisfying, fun and not completely mindless way to spend ninety-six minutes. It’s also a great example of the idea that horror films can have something to say, say it smartly and still be entertaining and fun. It never goes so far as to completely reinvent the slasher genre or even attempt to deconstruct it in any way, but it does bring a few new ideas to the table that are interesting, especially given how few slashers there are these days that are attempting to do that. It’s not just a retread and it’s not even an homage. It’s essentially an expansion of what can be done in a slasher film successfully.
You can see SEVERANCE right now on DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix Watch Instantly.
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