Rocky road trip: Ben Wheatley explores banality of evil in satiric chiller 'Sightseers'


U.K. writer-director-editor director Ben Wheatley, 40, likes a good laugh as much as the next man, though that might not be immediately apparent from a quick look at his feature-film credits, starting with 2009's Down Terrace, a look at the dysfunctional family values of a clan of down-market miscreants. Ditto Kill List (2011), the story of a workaday hitman whose carefully compartmentalized life starts unraveling when a routine job turns out to be anything but.

But his newest, Sightseers (opening May 10 from IFC), well, that looks as though it could be pretty funny, following as it does a needy couple—prickly loner Chris and introverted Tina, whose life is defined by her overbearing mother's iron whims—as they take a quirky RV vacation tour of roadside attractions, including a 19th-century railway viaduct and museums devoted to the histories of trams and pencil-making. And it is…until someone gets hurt. Scratch that—it's still funny after several someones get hurt, albeit in a bleak, discomfiting sort of way: Imagine killer-couple classic Badlands as directed by Mike Leigh.

Which may be why Sightseers is being positioned more as a thriller, which undercuts the out-of-left-field surprise when it goes off the rails, but Wheatley takes the practical view: "When I saw Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, I had no idea what to expect and it was brilliant," he says. "But we don't have any stars. There's no built-in audience for the material. I'm not a famous director. So we had to go with what we had, which means people go in knowing something about what's going to happen. But they don't know everything that's going to happen and they don't know how or when."

And timing is everything: Like Kill List and Down Terrace, Sightseers is a slow reveal, even though the first bit of mayhem occurs early on. "There was some talk that the first killing should occur later," Wheatley admits, "but I felt we needed to get it out of the way early." Once you know Chris is capable of murder, the way is clear to explore the relationship between the film's criminal lovers, one that takes its own unexpected turns and keeps doing so right up to the very end, which is where Wheatley—who wrote the screenplay with stars Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, and input from Amy Jump (his wife and regular co-writer/editor)—likes to begin.

And there's a third character as well: the rolling Northern English countryside, thick with history and studded with ruins and ley lines rubbing up against RV parks and tourist-friendly restaurants. "You have these ideas about pagan and other religious cultures existing alongside modern society in Sightseers," Wheatley says, "and in Kill List as well. But in the U.K. that's not our only point of reference. This is an ancient country…those stones are everywhere.

"There's a connection in terms of the story being built around a trap for the main character, but you could also say that about The Manchurian Candidate or The Parallax View, where a character is gradually manipulated into doing something that wouldn't have seemed possible at the outset."

All of which connects both to a particular strain of sophisticated horror movies epitomized by Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer's cult classic The Wicker Man (1973), and sheds light on "U is for Unearthed," Wheatley's contribution to the compendium The ABCs of Death (2012), a two-minute vampire story told from an unusual perspective. "Mostly it was an excuse to get everyone together, go out in the woods and make a movie," he admits. "But I also did a little zombie thing for [London-based horror/fantasy festival] FrightFest. The chances of me getting to do things like that as features are pretty thin."

But that doesn't mean he wouldn't jump at the chance. "I love Dawn of the Dead, the original Romero version…though I have a secret affection for the Zack Snyder remake as well—there's room for both of them. And I love [Romero's] Martin…such an original take on vampires. I guess I'm all about George Romero…but really, Night of the Living Dead changed everything, didn't it? So maybe I might have a go at one of the big monsters—the public-domain ones."

But that will have to wait. Wheatley is currently in post-production on A Field in England, a 17th-century "black-and-white English Civil War movie with magic mushrooms," and there's been talk about a monsters-and-mercenaries action project called Freakshift, again co-written with Jump. The pitch, which pretty much defines high-concept, was "Hill Street Blues vs Monsters." If it comes together, it will be his first American production and his biggest-budgeted to date. Not that money is everything: Down Terrace was made for £6,000 (just under $10,000), and it's hard to imagine a bigger budget making it better—easier on all concerned, perhaps, but not better.

Overall, Wheatley is all for low-budget, DIY filmmaking because it levels the playing field. "I was on a panel at SXSW," he recounts, "and one of the questions that came up was why there aren't more women making horror movies. My take is that for a long time they were shut out by gangs of technical-minded men, but that's changing now because the gear is all around us—anyone can have a go at anything."

Is that really a good thing, you may be asking? "Absolutely. More movies should get made. It's good for filmmakers and it's good for audiences."