Severance is a story of terrible things that couldn’t have happened to funnier people. British writer-director Christopher Smith’s second film (after 2004’s Creep) is a horror movie that thinks it’s a comedy. But it’s not a straight-up joke machine like Shaun of the Dead. Nor is it parodic, like the Scream series. Think more along the lines of what you’d get if the gang from The Office schlepped to the forest for a team-building weekend, only to discover that their bumbling boss may have very well led them to their deaths.
The opening-credits scene, which pairs the bouncy oldie “Itchycoo Park” with an image of blood pouring over the face of a man hanging upside-down, is the first sign that Severance is going to be a bit different. The film then backs up to introduce an office manager and his six eye-rolling pawns. They’re from the European branch of Palisade Defence, an international weapons firm, and they’re unenthusiastically headed to a lodge in Hungary when a tree blocking a main road prevents their bus from delivering them to the accommodations. Reactions vary: The uptight Harris (Toby Stephens) just wants to go back to the hotel. Butt-kisser Gordon (Andy Nyman) thinks this is a great opportunity to begin to work on working together. Maggie (Laura Harris), Jill (Claudie Blakley), and Billy (Babou Ceesay) give up on trying to convince their boss, Richard (Tim McInnerny), that his map is worthless and agree to follow him on foot. Steve (Danny Dyer) is high off his ass and doesn’t care what’s going on. He claims to have seen someone in the woods, but the others figure that he’s seeing lots of things and ignore him.
The employees lose even more team spirit when they discover that their “luxury” lodge is just a dump, despite Richard’s pathetic attempts to rouse them with platitudes such as “I can’t spell ‘success’ without ‘u’—and you and you and you!” (“There’s only one ‘u’ in ‘success,’ ” someone responds.) With nothing better to do, a few of them tell ghost stories: The lodge was once an asylum where the patients murdered the doctors. Or a prison for war criminals, against whom Palisade weapons were used. All of them—well, most of them—fancy themselves too smart to really believe any of the theories. But when Harris and Jill wander about the next day to hunt for a cell-phone signal and find their bus crashed and the driver dead in a non-accidental way, panic sets in.
Smith and co-writer James Moran wait until past Severance’s halfway mark to really bring on the bloodshed, which the director makes selectively graphic instead of dripping each scene in gore. Every now and then there are bits of humor—such as an aftereffect of a decapitation that was foreshadowed in the earlier bickering—but the slasher element is primary. The action is the usual cat-and-mouse, but one important difference distinguishes Severance: From the spineless boss to the bitter smartass to the class clown, the stock co-workers and their dryly comic interactions warm you to these characters. They’re familiar, entertaining people, not clichéd targets, so you’re invested in them by the time the killing comes around. If nothing else, Severance will make you realize that even if you’re surrounded by people who drive you crazy, your worst day at the office isn’t really all that bad.