Heads Will Roll

Satire and horror make for bad synergy in Severance.

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Christopher Smith comedy-horror movies severed limbs Directed by Christopher Smith; Written by Christopher Smith and James Moran; Starring Danny Dyer, Toby Stephens, Tim McInnerny, Claudie Blakley, Babou Ceesay, Laura Harris, and Andy Nyman; Rated R; Opens Friday
The idea of "getting axed" is exploited for maximum double-entendre value in Severance, a grisly horror-comedy from the U.K. that has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. Yes, heads (and a severed foot) roll during the course of the "team-building weekend" embarked upon by seven employees of global weapons manufacturer Palisade Defence. Deep into the Hungarian countryside they go, en route to a supposedly luxurious resort. Instead, they find themselves waylaid at an eerily depopulated villa, where someone -- possibly a disgruntled former client -- has a bone to pick with the Palisade powers-that-be.

Directed by Christopher Smith, Severance doesn't beat around the bush: The movie opens with a flash-forward to its own frenetic climax, as a trio of soon-to-be-victims run for their lives through a dense forest, pursued by an unseen assailant and a shaky handheld camera. The images will seem instantly familiar to connoisseurs of le cinéma du torture porn, only instead of the requisite shrieking fright music on the soundtrack, we get the Small Faces singing "Itchycoo Park," complete with its groovy assurance that "it's all too beautiful." No, Severance isn't your garden-variety torture porn; it slices and dices with a wink and a nod to the Economist crowd. It's the kind of movie that those who look down their noses at the Saw and Hostel franchises can feel OK about liking because, you know, it's a satire -- the Dr. Strangelove of Taliban-era blowback.

But unlike Kubrick's film, Severance isn't a sustained work of imagination. Part of the problem is that Smith and co-screenwriter James Moran play fast and loose with the identities of the henchmen thinning the Palisade employment rolls. The vagueness is intentional (the point being that whoever the "bad" guys are, the "good" guys were probably the ones who militarized them in the first place) but it gives the movie a fuzzy feeling, like a spoof that can't figured out what it's spoofing.

Not that Smith and Moran are sharper when it comes to the Palisade faithful, who register less as actual characters than as character types of the sort one might find in a knockoff of The Office. There's Steve (Danny Dyer), the laid-back stoner-slacker; Harris (Toby Stephens), the golden-boy sales champ; Gordon (Andy Nyman), the overly enthusiastic corporate cheerleader; Richard (Tim McInnerny), the odious upper-management tyrant; Maggie (Laura Harris), the office hottie; Jill (Claudie Blakley), the practical-minded wallflower; and Billy (Babou Ceesay), the token black guy. Fortunately, most of them are dispensed with rather quickly.

Severance is full of nifty sight gags, like that severed foot being jammed into a small portable fridge. As a director, Smith has the sensibility of a single-panel comic-strip artist like Gary Larson, with a knack for deadpan absurdism and an appetite for the macabre. But when Smith's Grand Guignol tableaux are strung together, they lack any forward momentum. Some take inspired comic flight. The rest crash to the ground and, like so much else in Severance, go splat.

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