by Glenn Lovell
They’ve barely known each other three months, but Chris and Tina of Worcestershire, England, are more than ready for a holiday together. They’ve plotted the perfect road trip, a zigzag-y jaunt north into Yorkshire and the Lake District. Their itinerary will include such tourist haunts as the National Tramway Museum, Blue John Cavern, Keswick Pencil Museum, and, at the northernmost reach, the legendary Ribblehead Viaduct.
They’re pulling Chris’s pride-and-joy, an Abbey Oxford Caravan. So they’ll overnight at plug-in trailer parks.
Tina (Alice Lowe) can’t wait to hit the road, put some distance between her and her suffocating mum (Eileen Davis), who does all she can to scotch the trip, including warning Tina that her new boyfriend is probably a serial killer.
Mother always knows best.
In Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers,” what starts out as a sunny, funny getaway ‒ set to the Gloria Jones anthem “Tainted Love” ‒ soon turns hilariously dark, a fusion of tabloid sensationalism and social satire. It seems Chris (Steve Oram) is a bit of a nutter, a tightly wound mumbler who reads every passing glance and comment as an attack on his working-class stock. Each leering retort says, “So, you think you’re better than I am, do you? Well, I’ll show you!”
A litterbug at the tram museum rubs our Chris the wrong way, and before you know it, the guy is hemorrhaging blood beneath the couple’s trailer. Tina is taken aback, momentarily. When Chris strikes again, this time crowning a fellow hiker who comes off a smidge arrogant, Tina lectures, “You can’t do things like that ‒ it could have ruined the holiday!”
“Could” is the operative word here. Instead of being shocked, Tina accepts Chris’s homicidal jags as a minor flaw in an otherwise winning personality. Chris fancies himself a budding author, and we know artistic types tend to be temperamental. Tina not only countenances Chris’s violence, she soon joins in on the fun, further cementing their bond.
Though considerably more graphic in deed and language, “Sightseers” has its roots in those Ealing Studio classics about murder most foul, including “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and “The Ladykillers.” It’s very, very English in tone and execution, at once droll and macabre, like Mike Leigh’s “Nuts in May” (about a working class couple on a camping holiday) chased by a tour of Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors.
Wheatley’s last film “Kill List,” about professional hitmen and witchcraft, was grim first, grin-worthy second. This one, scripted on the fly by Lowe and Oram, reverses that order. It’s a royal hoot, the funniest British import since “Shaun of the Dead.” As the bodies mount, so too do the dead-on, deadpan witticisms.
“I get you ‒ it’s just about personal empowerment, thinking outside the box,” Tina reasons. “By reducing their life spans, you’re reducing their emissions.”
As dumbfounded as he is charmed by this line of logic, Chris ventures, “So what you mean is … murder is green.”
SIGHTSEERS ✮✮✮ With Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Eileen Davies. Directed by Ben Wheatley; scribed by Lowe, Oram, Amy Jump. 88 min. Unrated (could be R for violence, graphic sex talk)