While the steady stream of blockbusters and franchises may continue to dominate the box office and the column inches, they are absolutely not the measure of modern filmmaking. It’s low-budget and independent movies – those green shoots of innovation and experimentation – that tell savvy audiences so much more about the current cultural state of play than identikit products churned out by the studios, who have an eye on the profits rather than a finger on the pulse.
That’s why to call filmmakers like Ben Wheatley the beating heart of contemporary British filmmaking is no mere hyperbole; with movies like Down Terrace, Kill List and now Sightseers, Wheatley is unafraid to challenge his audience to think a little differently, to embrace a unique method of storytelling and to give themselves up to his vision, however unfamiliar the territory may be.
The territory of Sightseers, however, may initially seem achingly familiar; pedestrian, even. Chris (Steve Oram) and new girlfriend Tina (Alice Lowe) embark on a caravan holiday through the UK, taking in sights such as the Crich Tramway Museum and the Keswick Pencil Museum. While it may seem a million miles away from the golden sands of the Caribbean, for Tina – who spends most of her time cooped up with her miserly mother – it is a chance to experience some real freedom, both geographical and sexual. It’s not long, however, before this idyll is interrupted by the inconsiderate behaviour of other tourists and Chris – not one to abide such interruptions – shows his true colours. Soon Tina is faced with a choice; return home to a life of drudgery, or carry on with the holiday, no matter what.
On the surface, Sightseers may be a horror movie, but it’s also a razor sharp observation of modern Britain, albeit at its most extreme. After all, isn’t Chris’s skewed form of vigilante justice something we have all fantasised about when faced with noisy neighbours or other social irritants? And although there are moments of utter repulsion, thanks to a pitch-perfect blend of horror and comedy there are also plenty of instances of laugh out loud humour; Tina writing a postcard with a giant pencil is just one of many memorable surreal scenes.
It’s not all blood and belly laughs; stitched into the narrative is a surprising amount of pathos. The characters are – despite their increasingly questionable behaviour – inherently endearing. Tina casts a particularly sympathetic shadow, her determination to escape from her overbearing mother and make a connection with Chris giving her plausible motivation to make the best of a bad situation… up to a point, of course.
So, although the couple’s actions are deplorable they remain understandable which, together with Oram and Lowe’s wonderful comic timing, gives the film a lightness of tone that is at delicious odds with its subject matter, throwing the whole thing off kilter in the best possible way. Playing like a deliciously dark mash up of Bonnie and Clyde meets Carry on Camping, Sightseers is further proof than Ben Wheatley is blazing a stunning trail for world-beating independent UK filmmaking.