Global arms-manufacturing corporation Palisades Defense—the McDonald’s of weaponry—enjoys making big claims. Their land mines, assault rifles, and missile launchers aren’t ethically questionable, they’re “hitting a home run for freedom.” One grandiose statement deserves another: with Severance, Brit filmmakers Christopher Smith and James Moran have delivered the cleverest slasher flick of the year. Laced with black comedy, it imagines The Office set in Jason’s Camp Crystal Lake as blowhard boss Richard (Tim McInnerny) leads his seven-man team of war profiteers to a remote cabin in the bear-ridden woods of Eastern Europe for a weekend of team building exercises. Anyone from Cubicle World knows that a weekend with their coworkers sounds scary enough. Only their morale-building rounds of paintball in the forest hit someone else besides dour Jill (Claudie Blakley) or awkward Gordon (Andy Nyman), Richard’s sycophantic second-in-command. And when the gang realizes there’s bear traps and corpses under the leaves, in their panic to survive, everyone—especially Richard—forgets his earlier pep talk about “taking ownership.” Should have been nicer to each other back at the water cooler.
Who’s in the forest? According to lore, their sleeping quarters were a detention for Eastern Bloc soldiers who got off on killing. Their blood lust was awesome—until peacetime. When deprogramming failed, the military heads snuffed them out like unwanted puppies with their weapons of choice: Palisades’ fine line of death machines. This might only be a half-truth. But the mountainous, heavy-booted Slavic man with cheekbones carved by glaciers must bear some kind of grudge, since he just carved the Palisades’ emblem on their co-worker’s chest. And with an estimated 6 million active land mines still haunting the Balkans, it’s a sure bet that someone’s going to step on one.
Severance riffs off the Hostel formula of scripting a gorefest with just enough political and social feedback to feel meaty. Eli Roth’s franchise skewers decadent American backpackers, as though the penance for lording your buying power is a severed finger. These British weapons salesmen are more sympathetic—especially stoner Steve (Danny Dyer), gentle Billy (Babou Ceesay), and kick-ass tough girl Maggie (Laura Harris), who has a shock of superhero platinum blonde hair. Like England, they’re guilty only of passivity; none of them gives a flip about destruction, they just like the paycheck. They’re prone to foolhardy optimism and shun bad news, making this the first time these pencil-pushers have seen their products in action—too bad they’re pointed at them. Ironically, as they claw their way out, the Palisades team starts to favor good old-fashioned rocks over grenade launchers in a series of messy, savage mano y manos that feel like watching two desperate animals fighting for survival.
What makes good horror is setup and (groan) execution. Smith and Moran’s characters first seem like office stereotypes, but bloom into individuals, which gives weight to the slaughter. It’s gory and shocking, but never cheap. That’s a tough balance, but trickier still is Severance’s perfect blend of laughter and agony. Stuart Gazzard’s editing keeps your nerves tense, even when you choke out a giggle at Steve trying to save his co-worker’s severed foot by stuffing it in a mini-fridge. But beyond all the moments of real guillotine humor, what lingers in this raucous popcorn flick is the message that when people get pushed, they push back—and that violent cycle always ends badly.