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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Sightseers



U.K.: Ben Wheatley, 2013


Maybe I’m getting cranky, but I found very little to laugh at in the alleged black British comedy, Sightseers —  a terminally nasty love-on-the-run thriller in which a couple of strangely ordinary-looking British misfits named Chris and Tina take a caravan trip though the North, a vacation  that eventually turns into a murder spree.


At first, this seems an unlikely development. (In fact, it still seems pretty unlikely when we’re right n the bloody thick of it.) Tina (Alice Lowe) is a repressed homebody desperate to get away from her mouthy mum Carol (Eileen Davies),  and also still mourning the peculiar accidental death of  her terrier Poppy: Tina’s Prince Charmless and maybe escape hatch, Chris (Steve Oram),  is a would-be writer with a beard and a hot trigger temper who wants repressed Tina for  a muse, and also wants to treat her to a caravan excursion through the dorky landmarks and banal tourist spots he loves, like the Grich Tramway Museum, the Ribblehead Viaduct  and a pencil museum (with the world‘s largest pencil).

On the trip the two get close (and loud) and Tina — like Katharine Hepburn in Venice in Summertime — blossoms. Or seems to blossom. Unfortunately, Chris proves to have a tendency to flare up, go bonkers and kill people, all with very little provocation. At one point, at the Tramway Museum, he runs over a fellow traveler for littering. At another stop, he goes berserk when a snobbish, smiling gentleman complains about Tina’s new dog Banjo pooping on the grass, and bashes him with a tree branch. I won’t even try to describe what happens at the Pencil Museum. (Fooled you!) Other gruesome events follow, mostly ignored by the police or unwitnessed by witnesses, or otherwise consequenceless, and all done gruesomely deadpan by Chris and Tina on screen, and by their Offscreen creators:  actor-writers Oram and Ms. Lowe and director Ben Wheatley. Wheatley also made last year’s deadpan bloody horror-crime thriller Kill List, which I didn’t like very much either. As I said , maybe I‘m getting intolerant with age.

But it’s not that I dislike black comedy; It’s just that I dislike this black comedy. British filmmakers, after all  — or at least some of them —  have often been smashingly good at milking  chuckles out of bloody subjects like murder and mayhem. and hellfire.  Consider Alfred Hitchcock, one of my favorite directors. Or consider  the Alec Guinness-Alexander Mackendrick  crime comedy The Ladykillers, which  is one of my favorite movies — as is Kind Hearts and Coronets, where Guinness was killed eight times by aristo-wannabe Dennis Price. I‘m also partial to Goon Show and Monty Python humor, engineered by madcaps who, I seem to remember,  were never shy about killing or torturing or even crucifying a bloke or two, just for a laugh.  I used to chuckle evilly at them all. But Sightseers couldn’t muster a chuckle from me, evil or not.

Maybe that’s because Chris and Tina are the kind of eccentric lower middle class types you often see in Mike Leigh or Ken Loach films (Eileen Davies is a Leigh actress), but done so coldly and cruelly that one begins to hate the sight of them. There‘s no one deeper than the Brits into class consciousness and conflict, but it’s difficult to laugh, or even get much interested in characters who seem barely human, unless there’s another contrasting character who can generate a little sympathy. (There actually is one here, but he doesn’t show up until very late and then doesn‘t do much.)

Lowe and Oram developed Chris and Tina in their standup comedy act, which means that they know where the laughs are, or where they should be. But maybe that’s the problem. I can see this story —  or bits of it — working well live on a stage, with Lowe and Oram on chairs, and with the murder victims (maybe all played by the same actor, like Guinness in Coronets) periodically popping up  and then popping off. But shooting the film on location, with realistic people and realistic blood, makes it more real, and less funny. The show begins to look like a piece of Leigh socially conscious comic realism in which some of the characters have gone psycho.

I realize that there were plenty of critics, and maybe plenty of viewers,  chortling away at Sightseers. But for me, it would have been better to make the whole show, and especially the acting, more stylized — as in the Ealing comedies cited above or in the way Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov shaded a similar story, and similar looking characters, in the more potentially offensive (but basically too-fantastic-to-offend) Eating Raoul. The people who made the movie, are talented, but not only did I not laugh at Sightseers. I didn’t even want to laugh. There are few semi-brilliant moments in the show — including the shocker at the end — but for me, it was semi-amusing at best. Or maybe I‘m just getting too bloody cranky.


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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon