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The good news is that Christopher Smith's Severance is not as gruesome as it could be. There is a lot of suspense, a lot of implication, and a few gory consequences, but the camera doesn't follow the hand wielding the knife - as a rule.

The other good news is that Severance is funny. The idea that a group of business people working on a project constitutes a "team" is tersely satirized. As is, of course, the horror genre itself. One of the most elegant touches that I've ever seen in film is the listing of the principal actors at the end, pictured, in the order in which their characters have been done in (if applicable).

The bad news is that the two most interesting actors top that list. They're gotten rid of so that they won't compete with the survivors in the who's-going-to-make-it speculation that preoccupies the viewer's mind whenever nothing particularly atrocious is happening. Once the killing actually starts, it proceeds very briskly, but when the survivors emerge, the movie opens up a bit. It's not over yet. This is both good and bad news.

The "story" is notional: a clutch of seven - what? inventors? salesmen? - from Palisade, the multinational arms manufacturer, is sent on a "team-building" trip in what looks like Transylvania. The bus is zipping along on its way to a remote lodge when suddenly there's this tree lying across the road, blocking the way. The driver rabidly refuses to take a side road, but his explanations are made in Hungarian, which his passengers don't understand. A sort of business-speak action-figure, Richard (Tim McInnerny), coaxes and then orders his subordinates to take their luggage off the bus and proceed on foot. Cambridge-educated Harris (Toby Stephens) is withering, Jill (Clodie Blakley) is skeptical, Billy (Babou Ceesay) is doubtful, and Maggie (Laura Harris) is too preoccupied by Steve (Danny Dyer) to care one way or the other. Maggie is preoccupied by Steve because he has just been eating "magic mushrooms" on the bus, and eventually has to be leashed. Only geeky, mindlessly cheerful Gordon (Andy Nyman) is enthusiastic.

The first forty minutes are so are suspenseful. Everyone gets through the night. In the morning, Harris and Jill set out for a hilltop from which they hope to get a phone signal. In idle conversation as they saunter along, Harris rashly tells Jill that heads remain alive for up to two minutes after decapitation. Then the twosome come across the slaughtered corpse of the bus driver.

The others, meanwhile, play paintball, with Gordon as referee. Presently, Gordon is complaining that, as a noncombatant, he ought not to be fired upon, and he is very cross about it! Then a man-trap induces a change of mood.

This is not to say that the funny parts are over - by no means. One of the funniest bits involves two escort girls (the very pneumatic Juli Drajkˇ and Judit Viktor) who are trying to escape from a pit. You've seen them at the very beginning of the film, and forgotten all about them. There is a wonderfully loopy "secret weapon" that misfires badly. And never has telephone on-hold music sounded more hilarious or more irritating. The grand guignol proceeds with assured self-consciousness, never above raising a smirk by calling attention to the generic nature of its genre. At the same time, the script, by Mr Smith and James Moran, takes the trouble to establish a cogent back story for the horrors, giving the action the real weight of internal logic that spoofs so often lack. For all the mockery, Severance is sophisticated film-making. (May 2007)

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