Thirtysomething Tina (Alice Lowe) lives with her elderly, domineering mother (Eileen Davies) in a quiet Midlands suburb, and there was a tragedy involving the pet dog recently which the old woman blames her for entirely, causing an already fraught relationship to grow ever more stressful for her. Fortunately Tina has a new-ish boyfriend, Chris (Steve Oram) who is going to take her away from all this, well, for a week anyway, as they have planned a caravan holiday in Northern England where they can travel around the countryside and take in the sights - what could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, if Lowe and Oram had any say in the matter, basing this on their stand-up comedy act about a couple who drone on about activities mainly interesting to themselves only to reveal they've been getting up to no good along the way. As a film under the direction of British rising star Ben Wheatley, Sightseers was closer to a serial killer horror inflected with deadpan humour as we were invited to laugh with the observation of the couple who initially seem to be harmless tourists, but then develop a nasty streak, a criminal pair owing something to the Hollywood idea of folie à deux as witnessed in the likes of Bonnie and Clyde.
Adopting what could have been a riproaring thrill ride in the Americans' hands and instead placing it in the most mundane surroundings possible was a clever idea, and a very British contrast, certainly one which appealed to the trendsetters when the reviews came in. But once many audiences actually gave it a go, there was a substantial group who wondered if they'd missed the joke, because frankly Sightseers could be summed up by a late on scene where Tina and Chris are stuck in their caravan at a supposed beauty spot while a hailstorm lashes its roof: it's intended to be fun, but it's really bloody miserable. Which is fair enough for a horror movie, but it did mean the laughs weren't exactly coming thick and fast.
An odd thing, that, for the rich seam of humour to be mined from prosaic British everyday life was evident in the history of the nation's comedy, whether it be affectionate or more satirical, even scathing. After the first fifteen minutes of this, it was apparent there wasn't an affectionate bone in the movie's body; in fact there was a cruelty to its tone which froze any laughter in the throat. Again, fine for a bloodthirsty shocker, but with everyone depicted with the same revulsion for modern Britain in all the pettiness, chippiness and meanmindedness of its worst aspects you were left adrift, with no-one to sympathise with. So when the jokes didn't raise a chuckle, where did that leave you?
With some tension in waiting for Chris and Tina to kick off once again - Wheatley's flair for suspense was well to the fore and remained his strongest element. When Chris accidentally runs over a boorish fellow tourist with the caravan and kills the man, something in him sees this as justice done for the victim's dropping of a wrapper on the vintage tram they were on before. But this triggers a need to right perceived wrongs Chris has and Tina is his enabler, eventually turning to murder herself for wholly spurious reasons be they jealousy of an affluent couple or a man asking them to pick up after their pet dog. Which isn't really theirs. With an episodic structure - visit an attraction, murder someone, repeat - Sightseers crept along without the necessary giggles to ease the sour mood; the main worry was not so much that Lowe and Oram hated everyone in their homeland, but that they endorsed the murderous acts of their characters as recompense for their frustrations. Plus the ending was lifted from the French and Saunders Thelma & Louise sketch. Music by Jim Williams.