Director Ben Wheatley became a touted new name in horror in 2011 with his unsettling thriller Kill List, which won rave reviews out of South by Southwest. Within that film he played with genre conventions and won the admiration of critics who happily admitted they never much cared for horror movies. As his dark comedy follow-up Sightseers gained buzz and earned similar praise, it made me me, an unrepentant horror fan, both curious and nervous. When people tell me, "I liked it and I don't even like horror movies," it means one of two things to me. One being the film is accessible even to those that don't typically appreciate its gore or buy in to the genre's conventions (Cabin in the Woods). Or two, the speaker believes the movie is "smarter" than they find most horror movies. I'd say Sightseers falls into the latter. And while I get what it's doing, I wasn't amused.
Whether it be the anti-sex blade of Halloween's Michael Myers or the maniacal "seize the day" incentive of Saw's Jigsaw, slasher movies typically spin out their tales of serial murder from a gnarled moral motive. The satirical slasher Sightseers operates from this same principle, but attempts comedy by making its central prohibitions smugness and condescension. Further separating it from the subgenre's expectations, this story's killers are not mysterious murderers veiled by shadows. Instead, they are seemingly mild-mannered lower middle class tourists on an otherwise mundane vacation, who kill mercilessly and with the slightest provocation.
Chris and Tina have been dating for three months, and are eager to take their relationship to the next level with a week-long road trip. His RV (or caravan) lumbers along English roads from one campsite to the next. In between the pair visit tourist attractions that seem better suited to dull class field trips and retirees, like walking paths, a tram tour, and a pencil museum. And on occasion they kill people. But this last activity wasn't part of Chris's meticulously plotted schedule. An unemployed pseudo-intellectual, Chris imagines himself an aspiring writer and Tina his muse. He fancies himself on the rise, but anytime someone reminds him of how lowly his circumstances actually are (whether they mean to or not) they are marked for his murderous rage. Such catalysts include bragging about a book deal, demanding the pair clean up after their dog, and (ironically) littering.
Screenwriters and stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram poke fun at everyday people who crave luxury, fame, and all its trappings, but don't necessarily have the interest in actually working for it. They just want it. Now. Other people have these things, why not them? This entitled attitude spurs Chris's insanely violent outbursts. (Alice's murders seem more about keeping what's hers, namely Chris.) These over-the-top reactions could be funny, and may well be in a different medium, like a stage play. But Wheatley doesn't spare us the brutality of these murders. Graphic violence is wallowed in with frank and disturbing close-ups of battered faces left unrecognizable, leaving little to nothing to laugh at. As Tina and Chris's proposed "sexual odyssey" transforms into a sloppy murder rampage hurdling toward a gruesome conclusion, I felt more and more repulsed, and confused how this is meant to be a comedy at all.
Sightseers has an intriguing agenda, aiming to tear up modern obsessions and senses of entitlement just like its otherwise average murderers tear up their victims. It's thought provoking for sure, but the protagonists' internalized sense of oppression and rage was revolting to witness, and gave me none of the satisfaction I generally enjoy watching horror movies. As Chris strains to intellectually justify his actions, my stomach churned. As Alice follows suit, I just felt sad. I stopped finding the film funny pretty quickly, and instead was overcome with dread. With an execution this brutal and sinister, Sightseers left me behind early on in its journey.
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