Violence, laughs, a surprise ending

Posted: June 01, 2007

'Whose woods these are I think I know." In Severance, they belong to hooded Hungarian homicidal maniacs.

A grisly horror comedy from director Christopher Smith, Severance takes a busload of coworkers for a British munitions company and plops them down in spooky, booby-trapped forests far from beautiful downtown Budapest.

The idea was for a bit of "team-building" in a fancy rural retreat. The reality: dismemberment, disembowelment and death at the hands of a masked band of terror mongers.

And the luxurious lodge? Try a dank, moldy hovel, with missing floorboards and a garden potted with land mines.

Smith, who steered Run Lola Run's Franka Potente through London's hellish underground in 2004's Creep, cleverly plays with - and against - the conventions of the slasher genre. Sure, the office geek (Andy Nyman) is going to get it, and certainly that obnoxious, officious boss (Tim McInnery). And if anyone's left standing at the end, it will be the attractive, resourceful female of the gang (Laura Harris) - but not before she's threatened with penetration and mutilation.

And what the hey, maybe there will be some gun-toting topless call girls, too.

Severance, however, is not a parody pastiche like the Scary Movie series. There are comedic moments here - the group dynamics of company colleagues are laid out and lampooned in ways akin to TV's The Office - and the gore and violence comes with a nod and a wink for audience's expectations.

But when the gruesome attacks begin - and you don't have to wait long - they are, indeed, gruesome. Severance will have you laughing one minute and feeling terribly unsettled the next.

And that can be confusing. Severance, for all its deft moves and jokey references, occasionally goes so far into Saw and Hostel viscera that a bad taste starts forming in the mouth.

But then Smith comes back with a killer sight-gag involving an anecdote about death by guillotine, and you can't help but smile. (Even the decapitee can't help but smile.)

Other employees of Palisades Defence that Severance runs through its gore gauntlet include a randy stoner (the funny Danny Dyer), a yuppie type Toby Stephens, a sensible office manager (Babou Ceesay) and a ditsy secretary (Claudie Blakley).

Why they're all being tortured and terrorized by a silent crew of Hungarian loonies isn't explained until Severance comes to its tricky, time-twisting end.

Suffice to say it's got plenty to do with corporate karma. And the word severance is more than just a double play on words - it's a triple whammy.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.

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