If you fell asleep after watching a double bill featuring Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May and Terrence Malick’s Badlands, you might wake up with the idea for Sightseers, the latest film from Ben Wheatley, acclaimed director of Down Terrace and Kill List. Alice Lowe and Steve Oram play Tina and Chris, a couple who head out on a caravan tour of Yorkshire’s Peak District, taking in such points of interest as the Crich Tramway Museum, Ribblehead Viaduct and the Keswick Pencil Museum. But Chris harbours a secret: he is a serial killer, with a tendency for sudden, explosive outbursts which result in the violent deaths of random strangers who have crossed, or simply inconvenienced him in some way. When the none-too-bright Tina finally cottons onto the fact that Chris has murdered at least two people since their sightseeing holiday began, she faces a stark choice between returning alone to her overbearing mother, or continuing to accompany her barmy boyfriend on his murderous spree – the option of shopping him to the authorities apparently not occurring to her.
Sightseers was dreamed up by Lowe and Oram as a logical extension of characters they have played on stage for several years, and as a work of character observation, Tina and Chris feel as real as any created by Mike Leigh, using a similar kind of improvisational character workshopping with his repertoire of actors. Here, such is the strength of the principal characters – in particular, Tina’s vividly-drawn and expertly-played mother – it feels like a failure of imagination, or even a cop-out, when the killings begin. If this was a throwaway British horror flick like The Cottage or Revenge of Billy the Kid, it wouldn’t matter, but Wheatley is clearly capable of delivering something far more incisive than a slasher flick, and would perhaps do well to make a film where nobody gets tortured, mutilated or murdered. After all, it takes a great deal more skill to make films like those of Leigh and Joanna Hogg – writer-director of Unrelated and Archipelago, two achingly painful films about dysfunctional English families on holiday – in which nobody gets killed, but everybody hurts.
The widespread critical acclaim which greeted Wheatley’s Kill List, which began like a Mike Leigh film and ended like The Wicker Man, will guarantee that Sightseers will garner a great deal of attention. Horror fans will no doubt delight in the bloody direction Wheatley’s black comedy takes, laughing with glee as each new murder is carried out and excused, in increasingly episodic fashion, with diminishing returns, until an ending is suddenly decided upon, seemingly for no better reason than the feature-length clock has run out. On sober reflection, however, even the most ardent Sightseers fan might be given to admit that a lack of bloody murder never hurt Nuts in May, and Badlands wouldn’t have been improved by being played for laughs. and, if they’re being really honest, that there’s nothing much in Sightseers that doesn’t feel like warmed-up leftovers from The League of Gentlemen or Nighty Night – except, perhaps, for the enduring symbol of crap British holidays, the caravan. ★★★