Some horror sub-genres often feel like a better fit for melding comedy and horror than others. Zombies, for certain, seem to lend themselves to comedy quite well. Vampires have had a fair go too. Ghosts, werewolves…not so much. Slashers and thrillers would not seem likely to be a good match for a comedic tone. The “terror level” tends to be fairly high in slashers and thrillers, possibly because they’re the sub-genre most grounded in, for lack of a better word, “reality.” And it is arguable that, from many perspectives, slashers tend to be the most problematic sub-genre of horror films, and have a tendency to trend towards the exploitative and misogynistic in many cases. And there’s always the faint specter of there something…untoward about making jokes about people being horribly murdered by maniacs. So slasher comedies tend to be rare, because they’re really, really trick to pull off.
Severance opens with a mixed group of British and American employees of a weapons contractor and design company, Palisade Defence, on a bus travelling through the mountains of Hungary on a “team building” exercise for the weekend. The group is a fairly typical mix of office types/slasher cliche victims: the yes man, the handsome jock, the mousey girl, the stoner, the tomboyish “Last Girl” sort and the manager filling in the “oblivious authority figure” role. Their journey is interrupted by a fallen tree blocking the path. The driver refuses to take an alternate route through the woods and Richard, the manager, walks the group to the lodge on foot, eventually declaring a run-down, decrepit old house to be their destination. Meanwhile, a figure appears to be watching the group from the woods, and they narrowly miss discovering a corpse in the underbrush. It quickly becomes apparent that the dilapidated building is a far cry from the luxury chateau the group was promised, but Richard refuses to admit the possibility of making an error and forces the group to stay the night. A cache of medical files bearing the Palisade logo is found in a nearby shed, and rumors of a seedy incident in Palisade’s past is recalled, when the residents of a Russian asylum for war criminals broke loose and the military hunted down escapees, using chemical weapons supplied by Palisade. After a rough night, the group decides that it’s time to leave and two head for the main road in search of assistance while the rest stay behind to participate in a team-building exercise of paintball. The body of the bus driver is discovered by those who left, and the judge of the paintball game wanders into a field set with bear traps, losing his leg in the process. The two groups join back together and attempt to leave in the bus, only to discover the road is booby-trapped. A man wearing a balaclava then begins to pick off the group one-by-one, driving the survivors back to the house. They attempt to wait out the night, but discover that the killer has entry through an unexplored basement. Soon only three members of the group are left: Richard, Maggie (the stereotypical “Last Girl”) and stoner Steve. Richard escapes into the woods, leaving Maggie and Steve to kill the masked man. They leave, thinking their ordeal is over, only to walk into another six heavily armed men, who chase them through the woods to the actual chateau, with Richard sacrificing himself in the chase to take out several of the men in a mine field, where they discover the owner of Palisade partying with two escorts Steve had hired online earlier. Steve and Maggie manage to eventually take out the rest of the men, leaving the pair and the escorts to escape by boat in the morning.
Severance mostly plays closer to the horror end of the spectrum, front-loading most of the jokes and basing them on the character’s personalities and reactions to the uncomfortable “team building” situation they find themselves in. The characters themselves are mostly flawed, but realistically so, and most of them are given a chance to demonstrate that there is depth of humanity to them greater than merely their office roles or their “slasher film” role designations. That humanity helps the film tremendously to avoid falling into the trap that too many slasher movies lay; making their victims too unpleasant and too unrelatable and cartoonish, so that the audience ends up quietly hoping that they will die quickly and leave the screen forever. We actually feel a connection to these characters, and when the jokes stop and the situation becomes deadly, we hope that the innocent survive. Given the morally questionable nature of the work the characters do, that is an especially critical need, in particular when it becomes apparent that the situation they are in is one that, indirectly, the company they work for is responsible for, on every level.