Going on holiday with a new boyfriend or girlfriend can be a stressful experience. Away from familiar surroundings, freed from the structure of an everyday routine and without the opportunity to spend much time apart, it’s amazing what you’ll learn about another person. Over the course of a week in a caravan together, Sightseers’ Tina and Chris find out more than they ever really wanted to know about one another – and in the process, reveal a lot about the suppressed rage simmering beneath middle England’s polite exterior.
Even before they’ve finished packing their bags, the couple’s holiday seems doomed. Tina’s overbearing mother takes a violent dislike to Chris and tries to persuade her not to go. Her warnings (that they’ll have a horrible time, that Chris can’t be trusted, that her daughter is a heartless dog murderer) are still ringing in our ears as the trip begins, and though she stays at home, the spectre of Tina’s mother looms large over the whole film. Because she’s almost right: Chris isn’t what he seems, and the holiday is a disaster. As the couple trek across the country, visiting every sad little pencil museum and crumbling castle they can find, they leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake. It’s horrifying, depressing, and somehow very, very funny, too.
Written by Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who also play the main characters, Sightseers is incredibly dark, but its well-observed characters and instantly quotable dialogue are infused with black comedy. The humour and horror are expertly balanced, kept separate enough that, while you’ll laugh at the film’s many funny moments, you’ll never giggle through any of the violence. Gore is used sparingly but effectively, and a combination of clever editing and sound design make it seem make like the film’s even more violent than it is. Every murder feels incredibly brutal.
Yet as evil as they are, the film never loses sight of its characters’ humanity. Tina and Chris seem like an ordinary couple, the kind of people you’d meet halfway round Tesco, even while they’re doing extraordinarily nasty things. There’s no justification for any of the violence, and there’s no grandeur to it – it’s petty and driven by low-level irritation and frustration. Despite the occasional leanings towards farce, there’s something horribly familiar about the world this film portrays, and the performances by the two leads are worryingly believable.
At some point, even the countryside begins to seem complicit in their crimes. Director Ben Wheatley makes Yorkshire’s sweeping landscapes seem simultaneously beautiful and bleak; Tina and Chris often appear to be completely alone in an empty world. And in many ways, they are. What’s really clever about the script is that nothing is ever entirely straightforward; every joke is shot through with pathos, and every moment of horror cut with absurdity, until the humour, anger, and sadness become almost indistinguishable from one another.
Sightseers isn’t a comfortable watch; in another film, the cosy trappings of an old-fashioned English holiday might have seemed twee, even reassuring, but in this one, they’re turned into something more sinister. While other British horror comedies like Shaun Of The Dead or Cockneys Vs Zombies temper their horrors with the promise that good ol’ traditional Britishness will ultimately triumph over evil, Sightseers exposes that as a ridiculously optimistic lie. Here, Britishness is the horror. And that’s really scary.