Let’s just clear this up: A lot of reviewers are going to throw around "Shaun of the Dead" when reviewing "Severance" because it’s a British produced horror-comedy, but the two films are extremely different. "Severance" cuts across and bends genres deftly that it’s a horror-comedy that goes beyond just referencing other films and playing off genre conventions. Director Christopher Smith clearly knows the horror playbook, but isn’t satisfied with just playing it strictly for laughs or scares. What at first seems to be something along the lines of "Friday the 13th" meets "The Office", ends up going off in a surprising direction which helps make "Severance" one of the most satisfying horror-comedies I’ve seen.
It begins with a man and two barely dressed woman running from someone in the woods. One of them is then violently strung up and brutally stabbed to death, in a scene that seems plucked from any number cheap slasher films. Then, the film shifts tone (something "Severance" will do several more times) and we’re introduced to our main characters. Not a group of horny teens, or a cynical 20-somethings, instead a team of office workers and their manager out for a team-building exercise. A strange group for a horror film, but that’s one the film strong points, the characters aren’t stock, aren’t that familiar slasher fodder, and immediately give the film a unique unpredictability.
Soon, after a fight over a detour, they find themselves without a bus driver in the middle of the woods, and they must walk to the cabin their company has provided for the team-building. Once they arrive, "Severance" plays out, for the next 45 minutes, much less like a slasher film and more like an episode of "The Office". This gives us time to meet the characters: The tripped-out, stoned Steve (the hilarious Danny Dyer), the brown nosing Gordon (Andy Nyman), asthmatic Jill (Claudine Blakley), Maggie (Laura Harris) the somewhat cynical American. just-doing-his-job Billy (Babou Ceesay), and the constantly put-upon, not very strong-willed frustrated office manager Richard (Tim McInnerny).
Team building doesn’t go as expected when the company lodge ends up being a dump, the only food they can find is a several month old pie, and Jill thinks she’s been seeing a masked man hiding in the woods (oh, what could that mean?). They decide to try send Harris and Jill to find a phone to call the bus driver, and what they then find is the bus driver horribly mutilated. Meanwhile, a game of paintball turns…a little red when the rest of the team discover parts of the woods have been littered with bear traps. This is when "Severance" goes from brightly-lit comedy to and turns, suddenly, very dark, tense, moody, suspenseful, and of course, extremely violent. At this time, what ever Jill thought she saw in the woods finally begins to make himself known and the team is forced to hole up in the lodge.
A major shift in tone like what begins the second act of "Severance" is designed to throw the audience off guard, but since it’s so dramatic with a less confident and talented director you could also risk throwing the audience into confusion. However, because "Severance" has been toying with us as an almost farcial comedy for 45 minute and we’ve gotten to like and know all the main characters very well, the transition to ass-kicking horror jolts you instead. You almost don’t give a second thought when "Severance" goes from funny to fright because almost everything that follows works extremely well. Also, Smith carries over just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek humor from the first act to lighten the mood when things become very grim. This fantastic balance is key to why "Severance" works so well as both a comedy and a horror film.
Still, "Severance" deviates from the formula once again later on. You can be sure that no only does this film satisfy horror fans, but any fan of exploitation action films will be as surprised as I was by the third act of this very unique film. Hopefully you’ll get to see "Severance" where it deserves to be seen, in a major theatrical release. I was very surprised by the audience reaction to this film. Despite the British humor us American’s aren’t supposed to get, despite it being a horror-action-comedy hybrid which everyone is supposed to hate, and despite there being not real big name stars the crowd I saw it with was laughing, screaming, and cheering right up until the end. I give "Severance" my highest recommendation.