For the first half of the great zombie comedy Shaun Of The Dead, the running joke is that there's so little difference between everyday London and London overrun by the walking undead that the hero doesn't notice. Take that as strong evidence that the British have a natural aptitude for horror-comedy, with responses to danger ranging from dry wit to formal politesse to sheer blinkered obliviousness—all equally hilarious in the right context. Owing more than a little to Shaun's success, the new British horror-comedy Severance has been billed as The Office meets Deliverance, in that it sends a bunch of pencil-pushing desk jockeys to a grisly retreat in backwoods Hungary. Though it's never quite as good as that description suggests, the film shines in those moments when misery and death stare the characters in the face, and they stare back blankly.
The exceedingly clumsy setup finds low-level employees of a multinational arms-trading company on a bus in the Balkans, heading toward a "team-building" weekend at a forest lodge. When the bus has to stop in front of a felled tree, boss Tim McInnerny cajoles the gang into making the rest of the trip on foot through a shortcut in the trees. The first signs of trouble appear when they arrive at the "lodge," a dilapidated, boarded-up hovel containing buried secrets about the evils their company committed in the area. Before long, a killer with the stealthy skills of a military man starts to terrorize them, but even his presence doesn't immediately put a damper on the official activities.
Once the horror elements kick into gear, Severance gets past its shaky opening and works out a nice balance between slasher-movie shocks and gallows humor. Though co-writer/director Christopher Smith lacks the technical chops of Shaun director Edgar Wright, he's a master of misdirection; with deceptive sound work, he tricks viewers into getting scared over nothing, then comes in for the kill. He also does well to save the funniest material for the movie's second half, when the payoffs really need to count. Severance still seems a few rewrites away from living up to its potential, but it's remarkable how much just a modicum of wit can spice up the standard backwoods slice-and-dice. Scaring people with a horror film is easy; entertaining them takes a little skill.