by Jeff Meyers
Slasher films are the ramen noodles of horror: Stick a group of characters in a remote location, toss in a knife-wielding maniac then just add blood. Voila! Instant B-movie. Whether it's Jason, Myers or Leatherface, the flavors pretty much all taste the same. Things cooked up a bit in the '90s with the Scream series, but one can only take so much irony.
Lately, there's been a return to the humorless brutality of early hack-and-stab movies. While the production values are much higher and in an odd reflection of our political times torture has become the centerpiece, the genre hasn't evolved much.
If for no other reason than effort, Christopher Smith's Severance deserves props for trying to inject wit between decapitations and eviscerations. Following in the entertaining but over-praised footsteps of Shaun of the Dead, this erratic mix of the silly, scary and satirical, has more than simple carnage on its mind. Unfortunately, it's a bit hard to figure out exactly what that is.
A white-collar sales group from an international arms manufacturer heads to the Hungarian countryside for a weekend of team-building. Before you can say "isolated villa in the woods," their corporate retreat turns into survival of the fittest as well-armed psychos who may be disgruntled ex-clients hunt down and brutally murder the employees one by one. Heads roll and bear traps snap as the weapons dealers get horribly and ironically hoisted on their own petard.
The film's underlying premise is pretty nifty, opening itself to all manners of political and personal critique. Too bad screenwriter James Moran takes advantage of so few of them. While there are several clever references to the war on "terror," the satire is unformed. It's not that there aren't funny or scary bits, it's that there aren't quite enough of either and the social criticism never lands a punch. Worse, instead of exploiting his potentially interesting cast of characters, Moran turns them into generic victims lining up to be butchered.
Similarly confused, director Smith awkwardly flips between black comedy and grisly horror, never settling on a consistent tone. While he has a strong visual sense and talent for deadpan gallows humor (a la the Coen Brothers), he is unable to generate any real suspense or momentum. Only in the film's last reel does he find rhythm, committing to the script's sillier conceits. A wayward rocket attack and surgically enhanced hookers who are tougher than they seem provide some of the film's best moments.
Given the spate of torture porn that has hit the screen lately (Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, etc.), it's encouraging to see a splatter film that tries to violently skewer more than just its victims. With its interesting array of targets, amusing sight gags and political subtext, Severance certainly works hard to distinguish itself. If only it were as smart and edgy as it thinks it is.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.