The films of Christopher Smith: “Severance”

“Severance” is a really good film. If you’ve seen a DVD case for it, or read a capsule review on some site, then you might, just might, not be all that impressed with how it sounds – Brit horror comedy, starring Mark Kermode-bait Danny Dyer, no big names in it. Or you might have seen it and not liked it, in which case I’ll probably fight you at some point in your life – keep an eye out, you never know when I’ll be there. In fact, I could spend this entire review spewing hypotheticals about who you are. And although it definitely wouldn’t be boring, I’ll start talking about the film and stuff.

It’s a simple plot – a group of employees for an arms manufacturer get sent on a corporate retreat to some Eastern European country, and encounter both their own stupidity and a group of…who? Army deserters? Mental patients who’ve organised themselves into some sort of militia? A criminal gang? But that’s not the fun thing about it – it’s the skill of Christopher Smith in turning this base metal into gold; it’s the melding of a horror sensibility with a group of comedy actors and comedians; and it’s a clever script which knows just when to take itself seriously and when to go for laughs, a rarity in horror comedies.

It starts off with a couple of very unhappy young women, and a much unhappier young man because he’s about to be disembowelled, being pursued by persons unknown through a forest, and falling into a pit. The women try and fashion implements from their own clothes in order to get out, so we’re left with a couple of scared, mostly naked, Eastern European prostitutes in a big pit (I’m not being mean about them, they really are prostitutes). They throw a clothes-and-log grappling hook out of the pit and it sticks to something! Cut to –

Palisade Defence, an up-and-coming arms manufacturer, has sent its European sales division on a corporate jolly to Hungary. I had to look this up, as even though I watched it yesterday I was drawing a blank on where they went, and I know that absolute accuracy is the thing you readers really want. They’re on a three-quarters-empty bus, which indicates either a subtle reference to how badly their business is doing, or that was the only bus the producers of the film could afford. A fallen tree and an argument, not helped by Steve (Danny Dyer) nipping off into the loo for a crafty “herbal cigarette”, causes the driver to just walk off, leaving our gang to set off on foot for the luxury lodge which has been booked for them.

Problem Is, the lodge, when they find it, really isn’t that luxurious. It’s a bit grotty, and the grounds around it are overgrown, and there’s really nothing inside it for the purposes of entertaining a bunch of young executives. But, the British spirit is to make do with what you have, so they try and get settled in to their new surroundings.

This is the setup for what turns out to be one of the best British horror films of recent years. There’s tales told round the campfire of what sort of people used to live in the “lodge”, and maybe none of them are right, but maybe all of them are, and that’s one of the many clever touches in this film. And also, it’s really hard to write reviews when your cat decides she is the most interesting thing in the room.

So, there’s those stories, there’s one brief, beautiful moment of fourth-wall breaking, and there’s the bit when the cast find themselves getting bumped off, and have to both flee and fight back. So much of my enjoyment of the film was the way the format was messed with, along with what would have been a perfectly decent little horror-comedy in its own right.

So, 4.5 out of 5. Christopher Smith’s first properly great film, and there’s more to come. I recommend getting yourself the DVD and enjoying one of the most fun commentaries you’re likely to hear, as well.

Severance on IMDB
Buy Severance [DVD] [2006]

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The films of Christopher Smith: “Creep”

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be doing reviews of all the films of Christopher Smith. I think he’s one of the most interesting directors working at the moment, and if there were any justice in the world he’d be getting begged by some studio to relaunch some superhero franchise with his own take on the world, front and centre. He’s survived working with Danny Dyer and has made some of the darkest and most entertaining films of recent years.

First up, “Creep”. This film shares a few similarities with “Cloverfield”, in a weird way – in that we start off at a party and then the star heads off into the city and tangles with a monster. Admittedly, the one in this film is a little smaller, and there’s less cannon fodder here, but…no, that’s the end of that sentence. Franka Potente, oh lovely lovely Franka Potente, star of “Run Lola Run”, “The Bourne Identity”, and one of the few good episodes of “House”, is a slightly struggling model who we see at a party. That guy from a thousand adverts is a sleazeball admirer, so after getting hit on by him she leaves and tries to find a party where George Clooney will apparently be. A series of mishaps and delays later, and she finds herself in a remarkably empty tube station.

 

One of the great forgotten classics of British horror cinema is “Raw Meat”*, where an increasingly inbred and deranged lineage of people lives inside an abandoned tube system, only venturing near the world of people when they need some food or a new woman to impregnate. It’s a magnificently creepy film (and features Edward Woodward’s greatest ever screen performance), and I think the majority of “Creep” owes some inspiration to the earlier classic. Christopher Smith mentions it in his commentary, but either he’s downplaying it because it’s his first film and he doesn’t want to appear to be just assembling his favourite bits of other films; or it’s a huge coincidence (he says he’d never heard of it when writing the film, but was shown it during production…I think); or that admitting he’d taken too much from it might have triggered legal issues. I think it’s a bit from A and a bit from B – I can believe he’d never heard of it, but he maybe was inspired by it afterwards, and made slight changes (there is an explicit reference to the earlier film’s “Mind the gap!” catchphrase, if memory serves).

 

But I digress. “Creep” is this film’s mutated tube-dweller, and his origin…well, if you’ve seen it you’ll know, and if you don’t you might be bummed out I told you. Suffice to say, he’s not quite as human-looking as you or I, and he’s pretty upset about it. Franka is forced into his world by an unexpected and entirely unwelcome revisit from Gropey the Advert-Man, and the film then becomes two different films, in a way – we get her journey through the tunnels, attempting to get back to her own world; and we get Creep, and the life he’s carved for himself down there.

For a first film, I think this is great. A sensible move is setting it somewhere that people just find unsettling anyway – the late night world of the London Underground. Half his work is already done for him, and for those people who’ve passed one of the disused stations on the tube and have pondered what could have made its home there, it’s even creepier. Franka Potente is great, of course, as is the circular nature of her journey (more on that in my reviews of his later films), and the way the film approaches Creep’s character is pretty damn clever too.

 

It’s not perfect. As you may have gathered from the earlier paragraphs, I think it “stands in the tradition of” a few other horror films, and it’s a little…slight. I think most other directors would be delighted to have this under their belts, but Christopher Smith just kept on getting better. For those people reading this, I’d really recommend watching “Severance”, “Triangle” and “Black Death”, so when I inevitably spoil something quite important in one of them, none of you will be upset.

 

Rating 3 mysterious tube monsters out of 5

 

 

*Well, by forgotten, I clearly mean “mentioned on this film’s Wikipedia page, just under a different title”.

Creep on IMDB
Buy Creep [DVD]