SEVERANCE directed by Christopher Smith, written by Smith and James Moran, with Toby Stephens, Claudie Blakley, Andy Nyman and Tim McInnerny. A Christal Films release. 90 minutes. Opens Friday (June 1). Rating: NNNNN
It's the day after Severance's midnight Madness screening at the Toronto Film Festival, and director Christopher Smith is pacing the room. He's bloody pumped. The crowd reaction was very good - much better than it was at Cannes, where Smith said the people were "mean bastards."
"This is the best audience for the film," he told the savvy late-night Toronto crowd, just after revving us up by saying the film kicks the ass out of the Bush administration.
Now that's how to sell a film.
"I think it exposes the idea of a corporate war on terror," says the slightly unfocused (my guess is late-night post-screening party) Smith about the film's The Office-meets-Deliverance premise. A ragtag group of British employees of an international arms company get lost on their way to a fancy eastern European resort and find themselves experiencing genuine corporate backstabbing and hostile takeovers from a group of crazed military vigilantes.
"The arms dealers are getting a taste of their own medicine," says Smith. "I'm looking at where these weapons come from, and exploring the idea of what a legitimate target is. I pay taxes to the British government. Am I a legitimate target? I also wanted to make people question what they find obscene. Is it obscene to show a plane being shot out of the sky? Or is it more obscene to present an obscene speech on the day of 9/11?"
Smith is new to horror comedy. His first film was 2004's Creep, which featured Franka Potente trapped in the London subway being pursued by a monster. The rules are different when you're trying to make people laugh - and scream.
"Comedy relieves the tension, but it can also set you up for a bigger jump. If you're laughing and then see something scary, the horror seems more extreme."
He points to one of the film's most unforgettable sequences, which features an office lackey caught in a steel bear trap.
"There's nothing like getting a laugh, then a jump and a scream, and then another laugh and another, and to see people wincing."
What he and co-writer James Moran wanted to avoid, however, were those snappy one-liners.
"We didn't want those Roger Moore/James Bond quips.
People are saying that they feel the film's violent and gory, but I don't think it is. It's just that you get attached to the characters and so feel more when they get killed. If anything, I like the spirit of films like An American Werewolf In London, where it's tongue-and-cheek but you sympathize with the people onscreen."
Those folks onscreen, meanwhile, couldn't be more different. They include theatre bluebloods like Toby Stephens (the son of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens) and Claudie Blakely (Pride & Prejudice) and comics like Tim McInnerny (Notting Hill).
"In corporate life, you do find people who aren't alike but are forced together," says Smith. "What I liked was that all the actors had a natural comic ability. I wanted them to play it straight but with a twinkle in their eye. I didn't want to break any rules."
"If somebody's shot dead, they remain dead, that sort of thing," he says.
Those deaths are pretty inventive, and are likely what people will be talking about after the credits roll.
"I wanted them to have a lightness of touch - they're gory, but there's wit behind them," says Smith. "Even when a girl's burned on a tree, it happens in a way that's funny in a bad-taste sort of way. The guy can't light the matches. That's all important in establishing the tone."
Smith feels that the horror genre is about to take a turn. Although he's a fan of sadistic thrillers like Wolf Creek, he sees them drying up. He also thinks Korean and Japanese ghost stories have peaked.
"Horror is about to implode or go someplace really new," he says. "I'm thinking we're going to be seeing lots of devil movies soon. England has been doing comedy horrors. I think it's America and Canada's turn to come up with something new."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
On coming up with the best title of the year:
Severance is a darkly funny horror film about a group of British office workers who embark on a team-building exercise in an eastern European chalet but end up getting early severance packages.
The fact that the corporate types work for a global weapons manufacturing company provides director Smith (Creep) with a nifty little subtext about international violence, but he's less comfortable with power politics than he is with powerful scenes of dismemberment and decapitation.
Worth seeing for the rocket launcher sequence alone.