Mystery of the Pencil Museum
“This film was produced by committee,” said SIGHTSEERS director Ben Wheatley with faultless deadpan, “It was heavily focus-grouped, and we decided that a film with a small dog, serial murder, and a lot of minor English tourist attractions would be a hit.”
The filmmaker was speaking, along with writers and co-stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (a ringer for the late Nicol Williamson) at a Dublin screening of the new movie from the maker of KILL LIST. I lucked into a free ticket to the show at the Light House, a spacious cinema next to the place used as Checkpoint Charlie in THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD.
Wheatley (right) and most of his surviving cast.
SIGHTSEERS is a semi-improvised black comedy — it begins with a caravan holiday and becomes a killing spree. Oram is the experienced murderer, killing to settle petty disputes, like John Waters’ SERIAL MOM, rather than to satisfy perverted desires like most real-life mass murderers. Lowe is the inexperienced, unworldly woman breaking away from her grasping mother for the first time, and learning to exult in the joys of homicide, which nicely compliment those of sex and knitting (the hand-knitted crotch-less undies from this film will surely go on to be the most valuable movie prop since Rosebud).
For some reason Wheatley departs from KILL LIST’s deadpan approach to violence, modeled on Youtube verité footage: at times, the mayhem here has a gloating, late Fulci feel, a sort of “Here is a shot of our costly special effect” quality, which took me out of the film. But at times the location filming is extremely beautiful, and it gave me a surprise respect for the unknown attractions of the British countryside. “You don’t see places like the pencil Museum in many films,” said one viewer. “It’s in SKYFALL, actually,” said Wheatley.
Much of the semi-improvised film’s charm comes from the Brummie accents — Birmingham is known as an unglamorous and uncinematic city. It has historically low cinema attendance, and I think the only film to ever premier there may have been Beeban Kidron’s VROOM. It died like a dog. Peter Sellers, having essayed an excellent Brummie accent in HEAVENS ABOVE!, using it to de-glamorize a rather Christ-like (for him) character, returned to the accent in CASINO ROYALE, because it gave Bond impersonator Evelyn Tremble a suitably mundane vibe. Not even a vibe, really, more of a hum.
I’d call SIGHTSEERS a kind of BADLANDS meets NUTS IN MAY. I don’t really like Mike Leigh’s theatrical vision of ordinariness, and I generally like ordinariness in films only when it comes into contrast with extraordinariness. This movie does that. Wheatley is on a quite a roll, and surely we’ll hear a lot more from the talented Lowe & Oram.