Severance

| December 10, 2006

“Creep”, Smith’s first feature (which I caught on DVD as it had a meagre U.S. theatrical release) had a verve and ingenuity that belied its budgetary constraints – “Run, Lola, Run’s” Franka Potente was menaced by the titular character throughout one very long evening locked inside the tunnels and platforms of the London underground tube system. In the accompanying making-of featurette, Smith expressed a potent love for the maligned horror genre, and his sheer energy for creative craft was infectious and winning enough to redeem what was essentially an extended (and sometimes unevenly paced and far-fetched) chase scene.
This second feature has been granted funds from numerous higher-profile sources, so obviously the right people took notice of Smith’s prodigious talents. If only the result was more successful-there’s polish and ambition to spare, but Smith continually undermines his material with a puerile lack of sophistication. The way in which the film unfolds reveals that Smith may have a great sentiment for the grindhouse cinema of the 70’s, so there’s lots of infantile humor and obligatory cleavage on show.
Much more could be done to utilize the disorienting spatial dimensions of his central environment (in this case the majesty and menace of a Hungarian forest, a primeval, sprawling ground of hidden threats and unknowable mysteries); it remains lifeless and flat throughout the film, not richly enough imagined as a psychological stage which both reflects and creates the characters’ anxieties and fears. Smith works overtime establishing a nerve-rattling editing style that is akin to bullets being fired from guns, a sudden zoom lunge accompanied by a brutal wash of sound that seems to be substituting for a more elegant build of suspense. The tone of the film becomes an uneasy, awkward compromise between the sly satire of “Shaun of the Dead” and the nasty bodily trauma of “Hostel”, with which it shares a punitive reflex to dole out major comeuppance to arrogant Westerners who hubristically elbow their way into poorer nations with selfish agendas to exploit resources (people or otherwise) as if it were a God-given right, the world existing as their imperialistic playground.
An ineffectual office manager for a weapons manufacturer takes his staff on a team-building weekend, and it’s clear from his inability to win their respect or properly rally them (they exhibit only a surly contempt for him), that his is a division sorely lacking in morale or cohesion. By making them victims of a psychotic (but well-organized) rogue element of a third-world war regiment, possibly driven mad by experience, Smith wants to make points about the dangerous disconnection the executives suffer from the very real consequences of the products they callously create-the weekend’s dire lesson is that they get a close-up of the carnage their work inflicts by direct and lethal interaction with it. Just behind the manager as he makes his first bumbling attempt to juice his team on the bus ride to the villa plays a sarcastic advertisement for the firm which comes off as a gleeful celebration of profiteering off the misery and misfortune of others, cheerfully extending to them the means of destruction.
It’s a lot to ask of a modest horror film to carry so forcefully a political agenda (Smith certainly is not content to let it rest quietly in the subtext), and Smith hasn’t even begun to offer the right sensibility or maturity to support it skilfully. The film lurches from blunt, overdrawn comedy to grisly physical harm without finding the correct link between the two. It’s also unclear what Smith is saying about the efficacy of the British character as he grants the grit and determination to survive to a kick-ass American blonde and two Eastern European call girls.
That said, Smith is still eminently capable of the odd clever flourish. A dinner table sequence in which the group trades tales as to the possible origins of the dreary, derelict villa in which they are housed, is shot with imagination and playfulness. The speculation that it was formerly a lunatic asylum that was overtaken by the inmates is filmed as an Expressionist German silent that signals Smith knows his Murnau; another conjecture that it was a convalescent home for elderly war vets staffed, impossibly, by nubile nurses, is the very model of a Russ Meyer experience.
But too often Smith seems conflicted as to the direction of the film, and it remains a messy, disenchanting affair.

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