“This is our chance to find out about ourselves.”
In a way, most slasher films are basically just The Breakfast Club, in that there are some people who mess with the bull and then they get the horns. No, wait. Actually, it’s because the nature of having a large enough cast of characters for one of them to get picked off every 10 or 15 minutes over a 90-minute film lends itself readily to characterization by stereotype. Each person embodies a particular familiar role. Instead of the Princess, the Nerd, the Jock, etc, slasher flicks have the Virgin, the Slut, the Nerd, the Jock… okay, there’s a lot of overlap here. Anyway, the fun of this type of movie is putting these stock characters under a pressure situation–a serial killer on the loose, or all day detention, or in certain awesome cases, both–and seeing whether they conform even harder to type or somehow manage to adapt. Those who conform get colorfully murdered (think of the “dumb slut” character who decides that the mysterious disappearances are all the more reason to sneak off into the woods and get laid), while those who transcend their stereotype get to live, or in the case of The Breakfast Club, get to go home and smoke a whole pack of cigarettes. I think. It’s been a while since I saw that one.
While it has a lot of problems, the fun of the 2006 British slasher film Severance is that it imports its set of stereotypes from a genre not often combined with horror, the workplace comedy. Sure, the movie could do more with that premise, but you know what? This is horror. I’m not greedy. A little originality and some competent execution is a totally decent time at the movies. That doesn’t stop me from wishing this was a 90-minute, disturbingly violent episode of NBC’s The Office, but hey, we can’t have everything in life.
The poor suckers in Severance, for instance, are getting double screwed. Not only does their office team dynamic seem pretty miserable, but their weekend team builder trip to a lodge in the Hungarian woods looks to be just as much of a shit show. The bus driver doesn’t speak English, their new marketing video is disturbingly racist, and the so-called “luxury lodge” turns out to be an abandoned house quietly falling apart in the middle of nowhere.
Oh, and they’re being hunted.
So who’s going to survive? Let’s examine the new types Severance has brought us.
Many slasher movies, especially teen slashers, feature two female characters who represent a sexual divide. Usually that’s the “slut” and the virgin. (This genre is hella sexist, there’s no way around that.) But the characters in Severance are all adults, so that dichotomy doesn’t really make sense anymore. Instead, Severance features two types out of the workplace comedy. There’s the Hottie:
and the Frump:
The former is young, blonde, and tough without being rude about the fact that, at one point or another, every single one of her male co-workers reveals his attraction for her. As the woman who displays few feminine traits (and is also the most recognizable actor in the film), she’s a great candidate for either Final Girl or a promotion. The latter stereotype, on the other hand, is confidently unstylish, outspoken, and completely unfazed by giant spiders. You know, the classic archetype. Um, moving on.
Every office has one: it’s the upbeat Dork. They’d be a brownnoser if their can-do attitude and support of management was a cynical act to curry favor, but they really just do feel that if everybody tries hard and does a good job, everything will come out alright. They’re annoying as hell, but you’re still gonna be a little sad when they step on a bear trap.
Then there’s the Dork’s two opposites. As rude as the Dork is nice, humorless, vain, but probably great at their job, there’s the office Superstar. He’s the one who always wins the Cadillac in the monthly sales contest.
Also in opposite to the Dork, you have a slight variation on the slasher film stoner type–the Slacker (or in British terms, the Fuckin’ Wanker).
He’s never taken anything seriously (except “Ecstasy and weed,” he says), openly flaunts office rules, says ridiculously offensive things, and decides to order himself escorts off the internet to liven up the team builder weekend. It’s an open question why he still has a job, or it would be if not for:
The key figure in any office comedy, the Boss must enforce rules that are illogical, a work-life balance that is downright cruel, and in general not just toe but completely set the company line for the disorganized layabouts he’s in charge of. In this case, the Boss is singularly bad at management, decision making, goal setting, and virtually every other aspect of his lofty position. This is made clear two scenes into the movie when he points out to an employee worried about bears that, “There are no bears in Hungary. Unless we’ve crossed the border into Romania, in which case there ARE bears. If we’re in Serbia, then… I don’t know.” His chief quality is his spinelessness.
Finally, there’s the Token Black Guy that nobody listens to:
The fun part of the movie is watching these people’s personalities bounce off of one another as they try to deal with the first ominous, then deadly situation. The Slacker eats some mushrooms he bought off a homeless person and then claims he saw a stranger in the woods while he was taking a piss. The Frump complains that their company’s new advertisement contains only white actors with blonde hair–“You’ve made a recruitment video for the Hitler Youth.” The Dork claps his hands eagerly and organizes paintball. The Boss insists that all maps operate on the scale of one inch to a mile. Round and round they go.
As I’ve said, the fundamental problem with the film is that it doesn’t take its comedy far enough. The title and marketing suggest a potentially very strong satire–imagine a movie where being hunted for sport was the way this company dealt with layoffs. The absurdity of combining office politics and relationships with a high stakes story about life and death would be a strong comedic foundation. Instead, Severance takes its horror side almost too seriously. In fact, it’s arguably a little bit better horror film than it is a comedy.
Comedy is super subjective, so I don’t pretend to speak for anybody else when I say that this isn’t my preferred type of comedic movie. I like my comedies dense and fast-paced, with a high volume of jokes and/or a manic, farcical pace, ala Airplane! or Clue. Obviously, as a horror fan, I generally prefer straight-up horror to horror comedy, but if you’re going to give me a horror comedy, I prefer something like Detention or Shaun of the Dead to something like Severance, which has some really good big jokes but doesn’t build to them with enough (or funny enough) jokes in between. The best joke of the movie, an essentially random gag that gets dropped in the story purely because it’s funny, has a good chance of making my traditional end of Killtoberfest list of memorable moments; but laugh out loud bits like that were relatively rare here.
Instead, the film invests quite a bit of sincerity in its horror elements, and even though it’s a fairly generic story involving Eastern European ex-mercenaries with a literal ax to grind when it comes to the employees of Palisade Defense, it’s told with enough wit and energy that I definitely cared about whether or not the characters survived. And although some of them don’t (including one wickedly funny death scene presaged by a set-up conversation earlier in the film), what is interesting is which of these types change and which double down on their essential natures. Some, like the snobby Superstar, go out the way they came in; others, like the Slacker, find themselves capable of growing to meet the situation. Even the Boss turns out to have a backbone. (And a spleen, and a torso, and… heh-heh-heh.)
Ultimately, Severance does manage to be fun and engaging. But it still represents a loss of potential. Even if there was no way I was going to get my very special episode of The Office, with Dwight making tiger traps and Michael Scott pulling a finger gun on the killer and Jim’s severed head still mugging to the camera, I think the film could have been funnier and more interesting without losing the aspects that do work. Why not push the corporate side of things? As it is, the team building that actually happens feels perfunctory, and the group is not always distinguishable from any other generic set of people lost in the woods. Maybe with a stronger focus on the premise, Severance could have been a cut above, gotten a bigger slice of the box office, been more highly ser-rated by the critics, something something something knife.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because America’s workforce needs all the help it can get. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.