Severance is a British horror film with a comic edge about a group of workers from an arms company sent on a team-bonding exercise in some remote Hungarian woods who find themselves being terrorised and then picked-off by a band of local soldiers. The film is a second horror offering from its director Christopher Smith, whose first film, Creep, had been classified 18 in 2004.
Severance was submitted for classification in 2006 having previously been the subject of an advice viewing by the BBFC. Advice viewings are a service available to distribution companies who require an indication of what category a film is likely to achieve based on a version that might well be incomplete (with missing scenes or with special effects to be added). The advice given is informal and the BBFC reserves the right to classify a work at a different category to the one advised when it is formally submitted in the completed version intended for release.
The formal submission of Severance was accompanied by the distributor’s request for a 15 certificate and the examiners assigned to view the film noted that the main classification issues were frequent use of strong language and strong violence with accompanying bloody detail and gore quite typical of the horror genre represented by the work. The film also features sex and drug references, as well as sight of soft drug use. The examiners agreed that the issues were contained at the upper end of the 15 category but echoed the view expressed at the advice stage that the strength and detail of the horror violence placed the work on the 15/18 borderline. In such cases the BBFC canvasses wider internal opinion and so a second examining team viewed the work, eventually concurring with the first team on the 15 category.
The quantity of strong language in the film (numerous uses of ‘f**k’ and one of ‘motherf****r’) established 15 as the minimum category which was also able to accommodate the relatively moderate nature of the sex references. The Guidelines at 15 state that ‘drug taking may be shown but the film as a whole must not promote or encourage drug misuse’ and it was felt that the slacker Steve’s use of marijuana, magic mushrooms and ecstasy did not, in the context of his character, glamorise the activity.
The combination of threat and violence in the form of various bloody stabbings, shootings, beatings, beheadings, characters being set aflame or falling victim to torture and gruesome injury (the severing of Gordon’s leg in the bear trap, for example) carried a strength and intensity that tested the Guidelines at 15 which state that ‘Violence may be strong but may not dwell on the infliction of pain and injury. Scenes of sexual violence must be discreet and brief’. And in terms of horror, the Guidelines at 15 allow for ‘Strong threat and menace…[but] The strongest gory images are unlikely to be acceptable’.
The vast majority of violence in Severance is handled in such a way that sees it occurring either off screen or lacking detail in the way it is carried out (by the key moments of action being masked or an impression only given of what is happening) and no individual incident is unduly drawn out. Consequently, it was felt that there was no dwelling ‘on the infliction of pain and injury’ or a focus on sadism that might have presented a telling challenge to the Guidelines at 15.
Similarly, the bloody injury detail is well-precedented at 15 with even the more gruesome moments (Gordon’s ordeal in the bear trap and the carving of the company logo into his stomach with chunks of his flesh being thrown onto a table) not rising to the level of the ‘strongest gory images’ that might have required an 18 category. Importantly too, the sexual threat implied in the soldier’s attack on Maggie towards the end of the film is ‘discreet and brief’ as it is not played out and lacks any eroticising detail, with the intended victim fighting back immediately and thwarting him.
The accumulation of these issues did, however, take the film to the higher levels of the 15 category and raise the question of whether it was more suitable at the adult 18 category - which is where the very evident comic elements in the work entered the argument as something that balanced the impact of the horror and violence.
Severance is a very self-aware film that, whilst providing the strong scares and thrills expected of horror works, also parodies the genre. It spoofs the typical set-up of an isolated group finding themselves under threat from malevolent forces that features in films such as Cabin Fever, House of Wax and Final Destination which are familiar to teenage audiences; it pays comic homage to the influential silent horror films of the 1920s; its characters are hopelessly incompetent and quite clueless about how to handle their predicament; the stronger horror moments are punctured by absurd sequences in which, for example, Steve attempts to cram Gordon’s disembodied leg into a too-small fridge and the arrogant Harris’s severed head is seen giving a self-satisfied smile and wink having proved that he was right in an earlier argument about the brain continuing to function after decapitation.
Such comedy was felt to have a balancing effect and to lighten the tone of the bloody horror violence in a way that recalled two other recent British horror films, Shaun of the Dead and Dog Soldiers, both of which received a 15 certificate. The comedy in Severance distinguishes it from strong horror works such as Saw, Hostel and Wolf Creek –and indeed its director’s first film, Creep - that play the violence and threat ‘straight’, and which were all classified at 18.
The BBFCinsight for Severance reads 'Contains strong bloody horror and violence'.
The film was also passed 15 on video and it was selected for screening at National Schools Film Week in 2007.