Ben Wheatley’s stark and startling hitman horror flick Kill List was my favourite movie of 2011 by some margin, combining a grim kitchen sink authenticity with a nightmarish, otherworldly atmosphere of dread to stomach churning, emotionally devastating effect, for me it was the most upsetting horror movie experience since Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. Strange then that Wheatley has chosen to follow such a dark, vicious little horror flick with a comedy about a couple on a romantic caravan tour of British heritage sites such as the Keswick Pencil Museum. That is, until the bodies start to pile up, and Sightseers begins to look like more familiar territory than previously imagined.
The lovestruck young couple in question are Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe). He is a furiously bitter and luxuriously bearded caravan obsessive. She is a sweet natured but simple knitting enthusiast looking to escape her overbearing mother and her guilt over the accidental death of the family mutt. Together they make for a sweet, oddball couple, that is until Chris’ accidental killing of an surly litterbug snowballs into a full on cross country killing spree, then, unsurprisingly, the cracks begin to show.
I had imagined Sightseers to be a very different movie to the one it is. I expected a bit of a wish fulfillment comedy in the vein of Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America, a likeable twosome travelling cross country, offing various unsympathetic stereotypes while the audience cheers them on. There is indeed an element of that (Chris’ victims are largely hateful, upper middle class “Daily Mail readers”), but Sightseers is much more interested in Chris and Tina and their relationship than the poor folk they’re exterminating. Despite excellent support from Eileen Davies as Tina’s insanely overbearing mother, as well as a few other vaguely recognisable faces, this is Oram and Lowe’s show from start to finish. The duo have been playing Chris and Tina for years in short films and on stage, and it clearly shows in their wonderful chemistry and the brilliantly authentic, improvised dialogue. Separately they’re both just as excellent. Oram plays Chris as obnoxious and fundamentally unlikeable, but he’s incredible funny in a very dry, blunt manner, and Oram walks an incredibly fine line to keep Chris from becoming totally unsympathetic. Lowe, as Tina, is the movie’s heart and soul, a strange, damaged misfit desperate to be loved, she proves herself just as (if not more) capable of unspeakable acts as Chris, but still retains a sweet, if rather deranged, innocence throughout, Sightseers becoming less about the couple’s journey together and more about Tina’s own bizarre voyage of self discovery.
Being that it’s a comedy revolving around serial murderers, Sightseers has a very tricky balancing act to manage, lean too hard towards either the comedy of the horror and there’s the potential for it to fall apart. Fortunately, between them, Wheatley, Oram and Lowe deftly balance both elements by grounding them in reality. Wheatley already showed he understands the banality of evil in Kill List, here he again creates an atmosphere of throbbing tension in the most mundane of situations, situations that Oram and Lowe then successfully mine for uncomfortable, queasy laughs.
The issue I have with Sightseers is that it does outstay its welcome to a degree, this kind of comedy is perhaps better suited to half hour stretches rather than feature length. The movie does feel unnecessarily padded out or unfocused at times, and these dips in quality are very noticeable and frustrating.
However, despite some niggles here and there, Sightseers is very enjoyable. It’s frequently laugh out loud funny, it’s wonderfully performed by both Oram and (especially) Lowe, it’s even unexpectedly sweet and touching at times for a movie about a pair of spree killing nut jobs. Recommended, especially if you’re already a fan of Wheatley’s work.
Sightseers is out on DVD and blu-ray 25th March 2013.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Stars: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Eileen Davies
Runtime: 88 min