Missed It By That Much: No, Not Get Smart -- Severance...

Director: Christopher Smith
Cinema 4 Rating: 6

Dozens of bear traps. The torture dungeons. The booby-trapped woods. And a busload of whiny, horny, corporate-type arms dealers. Oh, yes… and a pair of Hungarian hooker hotties.

Seems like heaven for a B-film drooler, doesn’t it?

Severance, a British horror flick that comes packaged with a healthy dose of actual humor (and much needed, too, considering how easily this one could have slipped into mere torture porn territory) seems like that drooler's version of heaven (and often, I am that very drooler), and in fact, much of it is kind of nifty and lightly smart as well. Sure, the bulk of the characters are annoying, but they need to be annoying so you have someone to cheer getting bumped off. I enjoyed it more than I did either of the Hostel movies, and far more than any of the increasingly ridiculous and bloated Saw series. It also helps that the lead actress is just the sort of kittenish pixie I fall for over and over again in the movies.

So, why do I come so close to giving Severance a pass? And despite the fun I had, why won’t it make its way into my collection? Why doesn’t it quite measure up for me to some of the classic horror-comedies or even some of the better genre films from the past two decades? What is it about Severance that disappointed me if it was obviously not much of a chore to get through the first time?

The last question raises yet another one, but it is a question which answers the previous three: it is one regarding re-watchability… “Do I want to go through all of this again?” For me, so often the key to my enjoyment, especially in a genre picture, is the knowledge that somewhere in the future I will return to see that particular film again. It’s a mood that overtakes often about halfway through, where I sense the certain delight in store by renewed face time with this story. In the case of Severance, I asked “Do I wish to tread down this dark-as-pitch path again, ready to once more encounter these characters and their really not-too-unique situation?” (I say this since we have been inundated recently with roughly similar scenarios, just without the twist that these are all co-working sheep basically being led to the slaughter.)

The answer would have been “Yes” with just a little bit more cohesion to the backstory – perhaps making it more openly a cleansing system for a crooked operation -- and with that certain something that I find so lacking in many of the genre efforts today: a steadier, more consistent tone. My frustration with Eli Roth’s efforts so far (which my buddies and I were discussing just the other day at lunch) has been due to inconsistent tone and an almost flailing attitude towards dialogue and structure. Roth’s talent is so obvious, and eventually, there could be a truly terrific film coming out of him. And so it goes for the makers of Severance. There is an attempt here to make more than just a standard psychos-in-the-woods film. It’s a shame that one never really gets caught up in the insane situation in which the chief characters are trapped. For a while, there is a drift from one tart-tongued zinger to the next, and then the film will drop the snappy patter for some generic horror action, instead of fully incorporating any of the disparate elements into one cohesive, fulfilling scene.

The prime disappointment though, is in not fully realizing either the location or the prop devices which are at the ready for the filmmakers. We see a field full of traps but only a couple are ever employed; the same goes with the landmines. There are pits, nooses, loops and spikes galore at large in the section of the Hungarian wilderness where Severance takes place. But the manner in which they are triggered from scene to scene is far more rote than one would wish from a film that is so inventive for short bursts of time. I know you take what you can get with some directors, but I really wish a film with this kind of set up were being attempted by someone with even half the vision or energy of a Raimi or a young Pete Jackson. I kept imagining the film would build ever bigger on the wacky stunts early in the film, but such grander things never occur. Yet again, as I stated the other day, my maxim of “This much, and no more” seems to have taken the filmmakers by hand, leading them from scene to scene via the easiest route possible. All it would have taken was one solitary scene which lived up to my expectations, and I would have been much more satisfied with the entire effort. I would have praised the makers of this film far past the point they probably deserved, and I would have looked forward to their next production with a deeper reserve of optimism.

I am still looking forward to director Christopher Smith's next joint -- a Bermuda Triangle thriller weirdly titled (hold for breath here) Triangle -- but I must admit I’m only mildly hopeful of the outcome. If you take a forest full of gimmickry and weaponry and only render it slightly above generic, and about two or three notches below its potential, there’s probably not much more you are going to accomplish in your career that is worthwhile. Hopefully, Mr. Smith will notice that ships are top-loaded with all manner of potentially interesting items and objects, and the ocean likewise filled with sharks and various creatures, which can be employed to create outrageous situations through which the characters must battle and eventually extricate themselves. Not just, "here's the scenario... ooh, isn't this dangerous?... how will they ever get out?... oh, they got out..."

Severance, for all its fun, whimpers out near the end, the threats stop being actually threatening, and somewhat becomes the simple-minded paintball game it mocks earlier in its script. The villains, so looming in the early parts of the story, become stooges, but not the style of stooges that the premise sets you up for: to be dispatched in increasingly elaborate ways, not just to be knocked down like so many harmless clay pigeons.

How can I be this mean to a film I actually liked? It's what makes the difference between a film like The Evil Dead and a film that merely emulates and strives to be The Evil Dead. It's what separates the men or women from the boys or girls. The films that truly contain a manic, unfettered imagination and those that play at it. The films that make me want to watch movies, not the passionless ones that merely fill up time and space (but certainly not my shelf space).

For the time being, though, Mr. Smith will have to bunker down at Camp Squandered Opportunities, the summer home of wayward film crews. Hopefully, he won’t neglect the two hot Hungarian hookers in the same fashion.


Andrea said…
I was really looking forward to Severance. The advance marketing screamed "Egg!" It promised to be clever but was ultimately run-of-the-mill.


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