The horror-comedy sub-genre is more prone to failure than most, because so few filmmakers are able to find the right balance between the laughs and scares. More often than not, they end up failing at both, with the comedy being forced and the scares non-existent because the audience hasn't had any reason to be invested in the situation. Thus, when one works for me, I take notice and am often a bit more vocal than usual when trying to convince others to check it out - which is why, five years later, I'm still trying to get folks to watch Severance.
Blurbed as "The Office meets Friday the 13th," the film depicts a group of employees from a defense company who are heading out to some Eastern Europe forest for a "team-building" retreat, complete with paintball. Naturally, some are more excited about this than others, but it doesn't matter as things go awry almost instantly - a fallen tree blocks their path and their (smarter) bus driver refuses to take the horror movie-friendly "back road," instead leaving them stranded while he turns around and goes back to the city. So they walk the mile or so to the lodge, quickly notice things seem to be a bit off, and after a (not really) peaceful night's sleep, the group splits: some go to find a cell signal so they can arrange for new transportation, others decide to go ahead and play the paintball game anyway.
Being a horror film, things get worse, and the body count rises at a fairly steady clip as they are besieged by killers who may or may not be forgotten mental patients or mercenaries with a grudge against their company. Whatever their origin is, there's a Jason-like variety to the kills that slasher fans can appreciate, and if you think about it, the movie has the highest body count in slasher history, courtesy of a positively brilliant (but horrifying) sight gag in the third act. At times it can almost seem like an action thriller when guns come into play, but there's no doubt that director Christopher Smith had slasher films on the brain when staging many of the sequences.
He also has a fondness for practical FX, including hiring a stunt double who was amputated below the knee in real life in order to pull off one of the film's nastier moments all in camera. It's a shame that practical FX are the exception instead of the rule and thus need to be singled out for praise nowadays, but the silver lining is you can appreciate the superior skill when you see it, without taking any of it for granted. And the off-screen gags have a purpose more often than not, such as the seeming death of one character who resurfaces later.
Smith also uses this device for laughs, like when Andy Nyman's character is seen bouncing on a diving board over a swampy, leaf-filled pool. You know he's eventually going to fall, so Smith doesn't waste time showing it - he just has Nyman enter a later scene covered in leaves and looking pretty embarrassed. He also never lets the increasingly intense slasher plot keep the film from delivering laughs - that aforementioned sight gag is near the end, and there's another hilarious bit involving a phone call that occurs during the final battle. If anything the humor ramps up along with the kills; if there was one flaw in the movie's balance between laughs and screams, it would be right at the beginning. The film opens with an out of context scene where two women are screaming in a pit and a man has his throat cut - there's no real humor in it at all, so those who go in not knowing that it's a comedy might take a while to warm to the humor (especially when much of it in the first act is courtesy of Danny Dyer, who is apparently not exactly beloved in certain circles).
But by the time the bear shows up, you should be on board. In fact, if you don't laugh like a loon at the bear gag, you might as well just shut the movie off, because it's pretty much the cream of the crop. I'm also particularly fond of the incredulous response to Nyman's offering of a pie, and Tim McInnerny's inadvertent quoting of "Jack and Jill" is quite brilliant as well. There's also a funny gag for Toby Stephens' character, but I can't help but wonder if (spoiler) his character's early death was worth the gag. Had his death occurred later, the payoff might not be as obvious as it is when he goes down only a few minutes after the setup. His character had some of the best chemistry with the others, so it's a shame that the movie didn't get to exploit it for more of the runtime.
On that note, the cast is pretty terrific. Their introduction on the bus quickly characterizes them and how they relate to each other, and you get the impression that Smith could have paired them off in any combination to produce laughter (it's no surprise that the bulk of the deleted scenes revolve around two characters just shooting the shit). The very charming Laura Harris is the lone American in the group, and while she doesn't get too many funny lines (though one of them would make Kevin Williamson proud), she makes for an interesting heroine - she smokes, she's sort of charmed by Dyer's nonsense, and she doesn't suddenly become Ripley for no reason. Not that she doesn't kick ass when necessary, but she isn't a one woman army, either.
It's also impressive when viewed in context with Smith's followups. At the time I first saw it, I only knew him as the director of the not-particularly great Creep, which was a Raw Meat knock off starring Franka Potente. However he has since helmed the twisty thriller Triangle and the terrific Black Death (also with Nyman), which was a somber, dramatic horror film in the vein of Witchfinder General. Each of these films was very different from one another (only Severance could be considered humorous, for starters), and if the IMDb is to be believed, his next film is a multi-director anthology called Paris, I'll Kill You alongside guys like Joe Dante and Paco Plaza, a roster that could easily produce one of the best genre films of the year. He's also got some other stuff in development, and if it lives up to his last three films (even Creep isn't BAD, it's just not particularly inventive, though Potente's character's destination is pretty wacky) he should have no problem making a bigger name for himself in modern horror. It's a shame none of his films has gotten wide release in the States, as they're all pretty accessible and feature known actors (Black Death probably would have gone wider if it was released after Game of Thrones' first season, as it stars Sean Bean - sadly it actually opened about a month before its series premiere), but perhaps I can see two wishes come true if Paris finds solid distribution.
Back to Severance, the DVD is jam-packed with bonus material and the movie holds up on repeat viewings, making it an easy sell if you're still down with physical media. I know the horror/comedy balance didn't work for some, and others might find the incomplete backstory frustrating, but I found a lot to like here, with its strengths easily making up for its minor flaws. And any movie with a Bulgarian hooker firing an assault rifle at a bad guy is automatically worth a look.