October Horrorshow: Severance (2006)

A horror comedy would seem to be a contradiction in terms. However, horror fans aren’t watching horror because they like death. Well, most of us, anyway. Horror fans look for the same things from film as everyone else. Escapism. Specifically, the ability to experience places, people, and stories that we otherwise would not. Films evoke emotion, but do so in a way that exists outside of everyday life. Combining genres, especially in contradictory fashion, creates a delicacy of mixed emotions that we could never experience otherwise. In what other place than film could one experience the wonderful flavor profile of a humorous decapitation?

From back in 2006 comes Severance, from writers James Moran and Christopher Smith, with direction by Smith. Severance is a dry wit British comedy built on the groundwork laid by The Office and Shaun of the Dead. That’s such a strong association that I doubt one will find a single review of this movie out here in the tubes that doesn’t mention it.

Severance follows a group of employees from an arms manufacturing conglomerate that head to the forests of Hungary for a team building weekend, supposedly at a luxury lodge. They get lost along the way and end up at a lonely, dilapidated locale that, it turns out, had been used to house Soviet soldiers who were too murderous and psychopathic to return to society. The facility was shut down at the end of the Cold War, many of the soldiers executed, and the survivors run off into the surrounding forest. As if that weren’t bad enough for the group, it Severance 2006 movie posterwas their very arms company that had a hand in managing the place after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In other words, the main characters didn’t just wander into the wrong place, like in The Hills Have Eyes or Wrong Turn. They ran into bad guys with grudges.

The characters are a typical motley assemblage, with satirical corporate coloring. There is the inept manager, Richard (Tim McInnerny); the gung ho corporate lackey, Gordon (Andy Nyman); easily-triggered Jill (Claudie Blakley); office hunk but street-average Harris (Toby Stephens); black employee Billy (Babou Ceesay), who it is implied is overqualified and underpaid; office lout and screw up Steve (Danny Dyer); and blasé Maggie (Laura Harris), the employee who always looks as if she wants to be anywhere but around her co-workers. It’s a little too silly of a group to be working at an arms company, but then again, this is a movie.

Smith takes a little longer than usual to develop the story, but was skillful enough that the film doesn’t drag before the killing starts. Pay close attention, and one will notice lots and lots of foreshadowing. This helps to trick the brain into paying closer attention to what’s happening. Whether it be throwaway lines or the many and varied forms of exposition, Smith tells a viewer just about everything that’s going to happen in this movie, and it’s a satisfying viewing experience to piece it all together.

The humor in the film is not of the spoof variety, thank goodness, nor is it the endless string of jokes one finds in straight comedies. The humor is situationally absurdist, which works better for a horror comedy. It’s a dark and bloody type of humor, where everyone in the main cast is the straight man, reacting to the strange things surrounding them, rather than setting up a star comedian to carry the film.

By the final act Smith largely abandons all the black humor as the story searches for denouement. It gets there, and the change in tone hurts the film a little, as if Smith and company ran out of ideas. The shift doesn’t take any sort of toll on watchability, though. It just means there are less smiles to be had the bloodier the film gets.

Severance, now seventeen years after its release, is a decent film, but it doesn’t do much to stand out. It’s the kind of film that seems destined to fade into anonymity, only cropping up in one’s experience because it shows up one day in streaming recommendations. It sits just on the good side of mediocre, held there by some good humor and a cast with acting chops and comedic timing.

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