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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Filmland - Severance

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As I write this, it’s the weekend of The Belko Experiment’s premiere.  This new dark horror-comedy from the director of Wolf Creek and the writer of Slither and Guardians of the Galaxy promises a playful yet gory dive into a blend of office politics, gladiatorial combat, and the corporate culture of backstabbing and inhumanity on the way to the top.  

This kind of subject has always been fertile ground for horror.  The idea of corporate greed as culture and betrayal as the order of the day was a core theme in John Carpenter’s They Live, and the idea of the evil, greedy, monolithic corporation exploiting its workforce has been a cornerstone of the Alien franchise since the beginning. 

Corporate culture was also obviously on the minds of the people behind 2006’s Severance, a British-German horror-comedy about a team building exercise that ends up murderous.  One look at the poster tells you everything you need to know about this flick, to the point you have to wonder if The Belko Experiment was somehow inspired by this film.  So, to mark The Belko Experiment’s return to this fertile genre, let’s take a trip in the way-back machine and check out the movie that got there first.    

Okay, so, I might’ve misled you here.  It turns out Severance is nothing like The Belko Experiment, it’s not even anything like They Live: those movies are good.  In fact, in one of the biggest upsets I’ve experienced review things on this blog, the poster for Severance is almost a complete lie.  Seriously, there is almost nothing true about this poster aside from the title and the names.  The poster depicts a businessman with a knife and, I think, a chainsaw in one stance and a decapitated guy in a suit in another. 

Combine that with the tagline “the company is making cutbacks” and you’d probably think this was some wacky, gory comedy set in a white-collar office space where the corporate overlords hire hitmen to kill their various office drones as a way of cutting costs.  That’s certainly what I thought after taking a look at the promotional material and, as it turns out, I was completely wrong because this movie is a by the numbers, 2000s slasher, set in a cabin in the woods- because of course, it is. 

Our story revolves around a group of office works for the weapons company Palisade Defence going on a corporate team-building retreat in the Hungarian wilderness.  You might think because this a company outing and the people work for a weapons conglomerate that what goes wrong is tied to villainous machinations, but you’d be wrong.  The company in Severance has basically no impact on the plot whatsoever. 

They try and stretch things to imply the company has some shady past linked to the area, but it’s not like that has any impact on the plot beyond just set dressing.  Honestly, aside from the sprinkling of office job stuff the plot is incredibly generic and derivative- a transparent product of the unfortunate era for horror that birthed this waste of our time. 

See, the 2000s was a strange time for horror, made all the more befuddling by how much people can’t agree on its actual quality.  Some folks will tell you it was a good time for horror, but those folks are lying to your face because the majority of 2000s horror films were garbage.  

People tend to mistake them for scary because they’re cruel, or at least more overtly cruel than horror was previously, and confronting that kind of blatant, unfair cruelty in a narrative can remind us of the same in real life. 

However, aside from just being mean-spirited and sadistic most 2000s horror has nothing going for it.  Occasionally you’ll get something unique and engaging like Saw, but for the most part, the genre was just chasing the success of the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.  

That’s why this is the era that gave us stuff like Hostel, The Strangers, Funny Games, Dying Breed, Vacancy, Wrong Turn, Eden Lake, Hills Have Eyes, and Last House on the Left.  That particular story structure of “people get lost in the wilderness and attacked my human ugliness” is precisely where Severance lives. 

None of the characters are all that developed despite having an honestly pretty impressive cast.  The head of the office group is played by Tim McInnerny from Blackadder, Toby Stephens from Die Another Day is on hand is the office rich kid, Death at a Funeral’s Andy Nyman plays the upbeat office safety manager, and Babou Ceesay of Eye in the Sky and Free Fire plays the black guy.  

You’d think with such a blend of dramatic and comedic actors they’d manage to do something scary or funny with this premise, but you’d be completely wrong.  All the horror elements were already tired clichés by the mid-2000s and don’t even manage to work on the level of unnerving cruelty that we’d come to expect. 

There’s a couple scenes of the masked killers moving in the background that come out of The Strangers’ playbook but none of its really unnerving, much the same way the death scenes all feel very stock.  What really weighs them down is how unreal the situation feels.  Like even as someone who doesn’t like films like Wrong Turn or Hostel I certainly concede that their scenarios seem like a thing that could happen to you even if they’re implausible.  

Getting lost on a drive or getting kidnapped in a foreign land are real and scary scenarios.  Being sent on a corporate retreat in the middle of Eastern Europe where you’re diverted from your luxury lodge to an obviously ramshackle cabin and then hunted by a group of Slavic militants has never happened to anyone. 

Speaking of the film’s villains, boy do they not make any sense.  They try and explain that the cabin the team is staying in was an insane asylum back in the 1900s that their company used chemical weapons on and also that it was used as a prison for homicidal Soviet soldiers after the fall of the USSR, neither explanation actually makes any sense. 

Actually, nothing about the villains makes any sense- they seem to hate the company yet also buy weapons from them with money they couldn’t possibly have, they’re cannibals despite the film showing us a larder full of game, and they all wear masks despite the audience having no clue who any of them might be.  It’s kind of amazing how much they completely don’t get the way horror antagonists are supposed to work in this scenario, taking all the worst aspects like a lack of motivation and tired, clichéd, horror cues, and forgetting to add any kind of original spin. 

However, all of that would just make it a poor horror film, where this movie really sucks is as a comedy.  As much as the creators don’t understand how horror should work, they really don’t understand how comedy is supposed to work, even more so when trying to blend the two together. 

Their conception of a horror-comedy joke is usually someone under responding to a tense or dangerous situation, which just means everyone acts shockingly dumb and unaware.  What’s more, it ends up shattering the film’s flow and suspension of disbelief as the movie tends to careen from horror to comedy based on a coin flip and act as if, because they chose comedy as a scene’s tone, it means they can just ignore the consequences of that scene going forward. 

I feel like I should probably apologize for tricking you into reading this but on the bright side, you weren’t tricked into watching a crappy 90-minute horror-comedy, so I think you got the better end of this deal.  Interestingly, this movie probably would’ve just faded away into obscurity had it not been for a real life killing inspired by the film in 2009.  Apparently, a group of English teens watched the movie and decided to re-enact the burning at the stake sequence, which sounds like the plot of an infinitely more chilling horror film. 

As for Severance, I genuinely don’t know why the film sported such an outlandishly misleading poster, maybe they didn’t think the movie would succeed otherwise.  Even with the bait and switch Severance has garnered a good deal of praise, all of which is undeserved from where I sit.  Take it from me, avoid this movie and go see The Belko Experiment instead, it’s at least being honest about the kind of film it is. 

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