By Michael Koresky

Dir. Christopher Smith, U.K., Magnolia Pictures

Despite attempts over the past ten years both middling (Wolf Creek, Stir of Echoes) and provocative (The Blair Witch Project) to bring horror back to its “roots” as a purely visceral experience unmuddied by postmodern pondering, Scream’s all but total usurping of the genre has been difficult to reverse—in its wake, seemingly every horror film was a self-referencing ur-text. While it’s debatable whether there was ever a period that mainstream horror filmmaking was without its share of irony or distancing humor (from Browning to Whale to the Hammer films of the Sixties and Seventies), the Scream series, reacting to slasher formulas targeted to a specific teen demographic, was as rejuvenating and damaging as any phenomenon can be. Yet its slyly female-centered narrative made its sassy verbosity palatable—Neve Campbell’s Sidney, was no mere victim but rather an epically put-upon heroine, both seeking unspoken retribution for the murder of her mother and unwittingly embroiled in an endlessly regenerating whodunit narrative, each version ending with her satisfyingly blowing away some serial-killer poseur/wannabe boyfriend.

If the Scream trilogy definitively wore out its welcome, probably long before it reached the last of its multiple climaxes (how much onscreen enumeration of a film’s own “rules” can one take?), at least its female-empowerment slant gave the buxom high-school horror victim a chance to turn the tables on her attackers. Naturally, then, as the Nineties gave way to the Bush aughts, the penchant for anti-PC roared in, and men were starting to reassert themselves. New horror directors like Eli Roth (with the upcoming Hostel Part Two) and Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes) flaunt rape and the graphic killing of young women with misguided authority, and films like Edgar Wright’s nearly flat-out parody Shaun of the Dead, while in a sense mocking machismo, wave a newly everydude ‘tude that, while momentarily refreshing in its lackadaisical attitude, is just as distancing and self-referential as Scream’s meta-mythologizing.

The similarity between these modes is that the young characters are always aware they’re in a horror movie (“I’m so not taking a motel shower…I’ve seen Psycho!”). The need to be clever, to not just exist as a genre but to act as its own critique, a riff on itself, is by now so ingrained that moviegoers have probably come to expect it. Thus, directors continue to make horror films not to scare patrons but to wryly comment on their construction and address (hello, dissertation!), and the results are ever more enervating. Cute and clever can be a deadly combination for a horror film, especially when the genre, once the refuge of the repressed and disenfranchised, becomes officially sanctioned by the hetero jocular norm. Even the leering camera of the Eighties slasher films, watching with bated breath as sorority gals jiggled out of steam rooms sans towels, assumed the perspective of a maladjusted, pimply teen rather than the threat of the über-male. But yesterday’s antisocial wretch becomes today’s swaggering overcompensator.

This all finally brings us to Christopher Smith’s UK-produced Severance, a feckless retread of all of these tendencies that doesn’t want to rub your face in dirt or poke your ribs as much as put you in a headlock and give you a noogie until you say uncle. From the beginning, it’s clear that, despite its cast’s multicultural, equal male-to-female/geek-to-stud ratio, Severance prefers the point of view of its central pothead horndog. First seen ingesting shrooms on the bus ride up to a Hungarian forest retreat along with his office mates, Steve (Danny Dyer, once seen very differently playing a lovelorn gay teen in Borstal Boy) is the film’s perspective, the wayward frat guy who must shake off his lovably obscuring drug haze when the bad guys come calling. Using Steve as our surrogate is an easy out, especially disappointing since Smith sets up his lambs-to-the-slaughter as a surprisingly diverse, liberal bunch—a rather welcome irony considering that the co-workers are marketing strategizers from Palisade Defense, a multinational weapons manufacturing company, on their way to a weekend of team-building and orienteering.

Severance is therefore also, like Hostel, given to ill-advised “chickens coming home to roost” political commentary. While it may not ultimately be as hypocritical (or disturbing) as Eli Roth’s fantasy of hedonistic American tourists being hacked up by high-paying foreign customers, it similarly uses an Eastern European locale as the breeding ground for subhuman, maniac dissidents. Hostel’s post-Gitmo riff on the pleasures of torture, infinitely more ideologically fraught than it could handle, was too delectating in its depiction of violence, and too easy in its cynicism. Severance, lighter in tone, combines the self-conscious British slacker irreverence of Shaun with the gory verisimilitude of Hostel—and it feels very much like their inbred younger cousin. The killers turn out to be a crazed gang of vigilante Serbian commandos, exacting vengeance on the weapons firm for (I think) providing the weapons to fund the wars in that region.

Yet any broader political point of view is lost in the haze of the film’s self-conscious post-Office workaday irony: There’s even an utterly Ricky Gervais-ish manager (Tim McInnerny) who, unsurprisingly, can’t hack it as a team leader when the chips are down and the blood is squirting. It all moves along a very predictable track, scrounging an unappetizing array of false scares and overly telegraphed soundtrack cues. Its “cleverness” frequently undermines the necessary building of tension: many horror directors too often take advantage of the audience’s nervous laughter, and Smith does it in spades. The one-upmanship of creative deaths (as in the Friday the 13th films) are replaced by punch-line killings: i.e., when one character humorously wonders how long a guillotined head is sentient before its brain functions die, naturally we know he will soon be able to find out for himself. (Indeed a final smirk appears on his face as his severed head looks out on the upside-down forest ground.) And so on. It never reaches the creative audacity of early Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson, two more obvious tongue-in-cheek antecedents, whose propensity to turn horror set pieces into Rube Goldberg-style thingamajigs helped set the tone for the “cleverness” of the New Horror film. A lack of spatial orientation in the shadowy lodge where half the film is set, and a quickly discarded comic gambit that allows characters to visually wander in and out of each other’s dreams and fantasies, gives the film a free-floating, nowhere quality nonconductive to the aims of a tightly wound scare contraption.

Severance’s attempts to have it both ways—to send up the post-Texas Chainsaw/Hills Have Eyes hillbillies-gone-wild clichés and to shock its viewers with ballsy, we-mean-business violence—strands it in the middle of the woods with nowhere to go. Its tonal (and political) imbalance is best exemplified by its ham-fisted portrayal of the only black character, Billy (Babou Ceesay), so earnest and love-struck with one of his office mates that he’s practically neutered. He’s even erroneously given the film’s only noble death, complete with overburdened strings on the soundtrack—such a difference from the comic guttings, slicings, and beheadings that befall the rest of the hapless, white cast that it seems something of a backwards indignity.

Severance may have memorable isolated moments (as when the resident idiot bakes a discarded pie before double-checking the filling, or when a bear trap effectively gnaws off his leg), but they’re never tied in to any larger idea, emotion, or even relatable fear. Far too concerned with how to inject “wit” into his patented witless scenario, Christopher Smith ignores the mechanics of suspense. Severance brings the comedy-horror subgenre one step closer to bloody irrelevance.