A tidy mixture of old and new horror motifs, the British-German thriller "Severance" is sometimes scary, often silly and occasionally jaw-droppingly daring.
While it initially invokes such German silent classics as "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," it quickly introduces a modern bogeyman: war criminals who were unleashed during the Soviet breakup. In the words of one character, they're "well-trained savages" who "liked the killing a little too much."
Perhaps just as bad, though in a less obvious way, is the amoral sales team (they work for arms dealers) who gather in the Hungarian woods for a useless team-building retreat. When the driver of their bus stops and refuses to take a short cut to their luxury lodge (where have we heard this one before?), they're forced to walk.
A mostly unsympathetic crew, the employees of Palisades Defence include the fatuous team leader Richard (Tim McInnerny), cold-blooded hunk Harris (Toby Stephens), nerdy Gordon (Andy Nyman), the wallflower Jill (Claudie Blakley) and the vulnerable Billy (Babou Ceesay).
Largely by default, the hero turns out to be Steve (Danny Dyer), a bratty, drug-addled but resourceful kid. He tries to impress Maggie (Laura Harris), who treats him like an annoying younger brother who can't get his act together. Dyer (from Helen Mirren's "Prime Suspect") is both comic relief and the pluckiest character.
When the visitors start getting picked off, like the victims in an Agatha Christie mystery or the hormone-distracted teenagers in too many American horror films, it's not difficult to guess who will lose a leg or a head next — though a teaser prologue does complicate things. So does an outrageous and hilarious episode with a deadly rocket launcher intended to foil terrorists.
"Severance" can be taken as a political satire aimed at the military-industrial complex and its promoters, but despite its pretensions, it's no "Lord of War." At heart, it's a sophisticated variation on "Friday the 13th," a splatter film with a slightly more interesting collection of targets.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
Showtimes and trailer
"Severance," with Danny Dyer, Laura Harris, Toby Stephens. Directed by Christopher Smith, from a screenplay by Smith and James Moran.
95 minutes. Rated R for strong bloody violence, language, drug content and some sexuality/nudity.