Looking back at Sightseers ten years on, one of the funniest things about the film is that even having seen it you can’t believe how it finishes from its mumbling beginnings. Kicking off like an absurdist Mike Leigh feature, the film opens with Tina (Alice Lowe) getting ready to swan off on a caravan holiday with her new-found beau Chris (Steve Oram).
Her live-in mother: Carol (Eileen Davies) is dead against the idea. The first noise we hear from a character is Mother emitting a howl of pure anguish. The initial interactions between the three are mildly chucklesome. However, the reactions from the agitated mother are Casandra-like. She doesn’t trust Steve and she worries for Tina. Or perhaps concerns for those who will encounter them. At first, it’s easy to sympathise with her sullenness. Who will look after her while her daughter is away? Yet the film ends with Mother calling her daughter a murderer and an accident. Once the couple get on the road, we wonder “What the hell is going to happen?”.
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Very soon a Nuts In May-tinged nightmare begins. Chris, an aspiring writer, claims he’s off work to kick-start his passion for writing, suggesting that the trip along with Tina will aid him as his muse. However, a discarded ice-cream wrapper unearths something within Chris. His rage at a slovenly young man ends in what appears to be an accidental death from the point of view of the sheltered Tina. But is it? Chris is very much like Nuts in May’s Keith. A self-righteous hobbyist who’s a stickler for order. Unlike Keith however, disruption to Chris leads quickly from rage to murder. Once Tina finds out about Chris’ bloodlust, she becomes less of a muse and more of an agent of chaos. The couple’s relationship intensifies and entangles until they reach their final destination: Ribblehead Viaduct.
Despite its darkness, Sightseers is perhaps director Ben Wheatly’s most accessible film. A twisted look at lovers on the lam that’s balanced out with a mischievous gallows humour. But the winning aspect of the film is found within its accessible protagonists. Chris and Tina are ghoulish serial killers. Yet their choice of victim captures the ideations of quite a few people if they were honest with themselves. From litterers to smug caravan owners, to flirty Hens on the lash.
The minute social aggressions carried out by fellow members of the public, that cause us to grate our teeth, are fair game to this morbid midlands duo. They do what we wish to do. While pulling back on Kill List’s grim brutality, Wheatly still deals with gore. A biker’s death cheekily harks back to Wheatly’s Cunning Stunt short. Heads are bashed and split open. There are quite a few falls. But Sightseers makes us complicit. Because it knows how to make us laugh. I’m sure we know a few people who wouldn’t mind unleashing the beast on a posh, obnoxious rambler.
The original premise for Sightseers stemmed from a stage sketch from the film’s lead actors. Lowe and Oram came up with the idea of campers who slowly revealed to the audience that they are serial killers. The idea was shopped to production companies who saw the amusement but found it too dark. Enter one Edgar Wright, who saw the potential, and passed it forward to production company Big Talk and producer Nina Park. Soon things swung into action.
Despite only being an executive producer, the Edgar Wright connection feels strong in Sightseers. Its screenplay holds a similar British irreverence in its humour. There’s more than a whiff of Shaun of the Dead (2004) about its shlock. Serial killers maim people due to perceived tabloid news purchases. A woman whose many certificates in dog psychology mean little to a pair of enlarged knitting needles. There’s a silliness in the slaying that edges around the ironic and relatable.
It’s a benefit that Oram and Lowe are both the actors and the principal writers of the piece. These are performances that are perfect in tone. Lowe’s unsheltered, uncomplicated Tina becomes a hilarious slave to her primal passions. All loaded up with the trinkets and soft plushies of their trip. Oram meanwhile nails the envious and embittered rage of a certain type of mediocre white dude. A man who wants nothing more than to be feared and respected, regardless of being a man of a middling persona. They rationalise their deeds by claiming it’s good for their carbon footprint – the kind of justification that feels far too apt ten years on – while the unassuming nature of the couple plays impishly into the dark humour of the material.
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This is Wheatly at his most playful. Moving away from the ambiguously political arena of Kill List (2011). Sightseers still has something to say about the agony and ecstasy of when someone lets their partner into their world. Even though their shared passion becomes murder, Sightseers still manages to mine amusement out their different principles in going about homicide. As in so many of Wheatly’s films, the pitch and tone of character interactions are proficiently timed. All the while cinematographer Laurie Rose sets the bickering couple against beautiful backdrops of the middle English countryside. Many a person in a committed relationship can admit to the humour of it all. Arguments with your partner while missing the gorgeous atmosphere.
Sightseers never feels too far away from Wheatly’s more outlandish features. However, unlike In The Earth (2021) or A Field in England (2013), there’s an openness to proceedings that the director has never really captured before or since. This is in no way a markdown. Wheatly remains one of Britain’s more invigorating operators of genre work in the current age. But in Sightseer’s final moments where an empty hand dangles in the breeze before the belting drums of Gloria Jones’ ‘Tainted Love’ step in to introduce the credits. The film’s commentary on what one may give for a toxic relationship hit hard. What’s even more shocking is how much you laughed before all that.