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Lucas Testro [Film Festival 08.20.12] horror comedy

After the slow-burning dread of Kill List, director Ben Wheatley shifts gears in his latest outing, Sightseers. He's still taking us on a tour through the dark corners of the human psyche, and the bursts of graphic violence are still there, but this time it's in all in service of much more tongue-in-cheek story, as he uses a serial killer plot to offer up a comedy about the perils of new relationships.

Tina (Alice Lowe) feels suffocated at home, trapped looking after an ailing mother whom we suspect was a nasty, unforgiving piece of work even before Tina accidentally killed their dog a year ago. So she leaps at the chance of a caravan holiday through the English countryside with unassuming new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram), taking in such exciting sights as the Crich Tramway Museum and the Keswick Pencil Museum in what Chris promises will be an "erotic odyssey".

Tina's mother, bitter at being abandoned, warns Chris could be a killer for all she knows. Tina defends her beau's honour, but it turns out Mum's right - Chris is a bit of a sociopath, as we discover when a litter-bug gets on his nerves at the very first stop. As the trip continues, the body-count quickly escalates...

Lowe and Oram co-wrote the script in addition to playing the two leads, and in both capacities they shine. The script is overflowing with great one-liners, thrown away in such an understated way you never see them coming. But the characters are also relatable and engaging, elevating a serial killer comedy into an engaging story about fearing loneliness and emptiness as we age. Oram wonderfully captures both Chris's insecurity and the self-importance he projects to hide it, while Lowe's vulnerability and generosity of spirit makes us root for Tina even when her dimwittedness pushes believability. Only in the last few minutes does the script waver, with Chris's motivation in a final plot twist feeling a bit unlikely, but I'd had so much fun with the film by this point I was more than willing to roll with it.

The editing is a particular highlight. Jump-cutting has been part of Wheatley's style in previous films, but here the unexpected cuts out of scenes and particularly Wheatley's choice often to chop off music cues mid-flow is used to great comic effect (giving a rhythm not dissimilar to the films of Sightseer's Executive Producer Edgar Wright).

The blood flows freely, with victims being run over by caravans, pushed off cliffs and bridges, or bashed to death with tree branches. In most of these instances the actual moment of impact is only shown fleetingly, if at all, but you feel its full brutality nonetheless - thanks in particular to the sound department, who ensure no skull is caved in nor body smashed against the rocks without a loud sickening squelch to accompany it. But it's the aftermath of the murders that the shots really linger on, whether it's a body trapped under a car with blood spraying from its jugular, or another horrifically brutal glimpse of one victim's face completely collapsed from the force of Chris's blows.

Presumably the intention here was to create a tension by undercutting the film's comedy and reminding us that the characters we are laughing with really are killers. Viewed from that perspective, the violence is anything but gratuitous. Nevertheless the level of graphic detail in these few moments may discourage some of the broader international audience, beyond the horror crowd, that the film really deserves to attract.

Hopefully this doesn't happen though, because Sightseers really does deserve to become Ben Wheatley's breakthrough international hit. It's a twisted, hilarious delight.

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