Thursday, September 14, 2006


(Midnight Madness)
(UK/Germany, 2006, 90 minutes)
Written by: Christopher Smith and James Moran
Directed by: Christopher Smith
Cast: Tobey Stephens, Laura Harris, Danny Dyer, Tim McInnerny, Claudie Blakely

Christopher Smith has followed up his solid debut “Creep” with an uneven mash-up of horror and humour initially conceived by co-writer James Moran as catharsis for an annoying commute, which found him surrounded by preening yuppies and vacant office drones he couldn’t wait to kill off (at last, a story that defines our times!). Considering that Tobe Hooper’s bad experience in a department store lineup inspired his creation of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, it’s a shame that “Severance” isn’t more penetrating beyond the serrated blades that tear through the flesh of these hopelessly-duped Dilberts in a rote scenario that owes more to recent torture fests like “Hostel” and the “Saw” franchise than the class warfare of “Battle Royale” or the obvious granddaddy of ‘em all, “Lord Of The Flies” (a British classic, after all).

To the tune of The Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park”, we meet up with six members from the UK branch of multinational arms supplier Palisade Defence, en route to a weekend team-building retreat in the remote woods near the Hungarian border. When their bus route is blocked by a fallen tree, their spooked driver refuses to take an alternative road and abandons them on the spot (considering the location, there are no superstitious villagers at the inn, or an inn). Group leader Richard (McInnerny) leads his sales team through the forest: his right –hand cronie, Billy (Ceesay), yuppie Ken-doll Harris (Stephens), nerdy Gordon (Nyman), sexist stoner Steve (Dyer), outspoken Jill (Blakley), and reserved Canadian Maggie (Harris). Having been wooed with the promise of a few days at the luxurious spa of the company’s American executive, they’re understandably miffed when come upon a derelict, concrete bunker. Nothing much is left, other than some ragged bedding, rotting food, and some forgotten Palisades files in the basement chronicling the histories of some very dangerous Serbian criminals that suggest the company’s weapons explorations might extend to biological killing machines.

Making the best of it, Harris, Jill, and Steve entertain the others by spinning grisly fantasies of what horrors their squalid lodgings previously hosted, unaware that another organized team is at play nearby. When the remainder of the night hosts mysterious noises and spying figures, a decision is made to leave in the morning for the spa. Unfortunately for them, the faceless psychopaths lying in wait aren’t quite 9-5 types—night or day is prime time to enact their long-waited revenge against the morally-questionable conglomerate.

Smith’s “Creep” hardly marked the arrival of a major genre visionary, but its assured pace and rare serious tone went a long way into overcoming Horror 101 plotting and ever-escalating strains in coincidence and logic. Comparisons were made to Gary Sherman’s “Death Line” aka “Raw Meat”, but social subtext was avoided entirely in favour of a modern Grimm Fairy tale, with peroxided Franke Potente as a fiesty, George Clooney-loving Gretel trying to escape being eaten in the Black Forest, refashioned as the dark and grimy maze of the London underground, with a forgotten medical lab as its gingerbread house-of-horrors.

Working on a larger canvas (Isle Of Man locations, shot in drab hues by DOP newcomer Ed Wild), Smith’s direction is more scattershot, but he gets points for invention, especially in moments where he gets to stray from the more conventional stalk-and-slash shenanigans. The outstanding first-act bit has musings about the bunker’s history each visualized as a witty homage to the likes of Murnau’s “Nosferatu”, a “Blair Witch”-styled mockumentary, and a FHM-approved soft-core fantasy. His parody of a corporate motivational video is also bang-on—proving himself to be equally capable at horror and humour but for some reason, unable to merge them as successfully here as Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg did with “Shawn Of The Dead”.

Act Two settles for a Joe Bob-patented anyone-can-die-at-any-moment marathon of blood-splattering and plot-dependent detective work by Maggie the Canuck amidst pissed-on corpses, pissed-off Bosnian mercs, and their merciless repertoire of guillotining, garroting, flamethrowing, rectal knifing, and skin-flaying. There’s a screamingly funny gag with a bear trap that owes more to “Cape Feare” episode of “The Simpsons” (the one with Sideshow Bob, the Gilbert And Sullivan tunes, and the rakes) than the climax of “Straw Dogs”.

Thankfully, Act Three brings it all home, when the script resets to its absurdist mode with the appearance of macho Yankee exec George, whose mishap with a big-ass rocket launcher is an audacious howler (he accidentally takes out a passing jet liner, which, along with “Borat”, marks TIFF 2006 as the year it became okay to joke about 9/11), and a cheeky cavalary-to-the-rescue in the form of two buxom escorts-turned-Terminatrixes who make for the best 1-800 number ever called.

For those of us who’ve endured the vacuous, manufactured camaraderie of corporate culture and have regarded liberation from our anonymous cubicle (adorned only with company-approved personal items, of course) akin to rising up from the primordial ooze, the high-concept of “The Office”-Meets-“Deliverance” is a delicious one. But “Severance”s bland stereotypes and derivative sadism would be better served by a video game—imagine how much better you’d feel come midweek hump if you could dispatch the office Fantasy Football loser again and again during a network match. Next time out, Smith and Moran would do well to focus a little more on their human resources.

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006