The thing about British serial killers in the movies is that they’re so terribly polite. Watching “Sightseers,” a low-budget lark about a homicidal couple touring the backcountry, one is reminded of Alec Guinness drolly dispatching his relatives in “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949) or poor, sweet Michael Palin forever murdering the wrong dog in “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988). No matter how many brains get bashed or how much blood gets spilled, it’s always important to mind one’s manners.
Chris and Tina (Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, who collaborated on the script with Amy Jump) are a sad-sack couple who’ve been dating for a few months when Chris arrives in his caravan camper-van to take Tina on holiday. The byroads and tourist traps of the Lake Country, the West Midlands, and Derbyshire are calling, drowning out the needy whine of Tina’s mother (Eileen Davies), who still hasn’t forgiven her daughter for impaling the family dog on a knitting needle. (“It was an accident, Mum!” “So were you.”)
The two are lucky they found each other: Chris is a ginger-haired hulk and Tina has the clear blue stare of a stay-at-home psychopath. They’re two loners who realize they share a raging resentment toward other people and a knack for bumping them off. The spree starts mildly: Chris backs the caravan over another vacationer, but since the man was a litterbug, it’s OK. As the body count increases, the couple come up with any number of cheerful rationalizations, such as the notion that killing reduces Earth’s carbon footprint, so murder must be Green. After one upper-class toff gets bludgeoned to death for asking Tina to pick up some dog poo, Chris assures her, “He’s not a person, Tina, he’s a Daily Mail reader.”
Darkly funny though it is, “Sightseers” has undercurrents of genuine and very British weirdness, like the reading of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” on the soundtrack when the above-mentioned toff is killed. Way down beneath the whimsy is a class rage as heartfelt as it is warped. The director is Ben Wheatley, an up-and-comer whose last film, 2011’s “Kill List,” mashed up elements of crime films and paranoid-conspiracy capers; it was cheap, borderline brilliant, and you needed to take a shower after seeing it.
The new movie doesn’t add up to nearly as much, and it’s not really trying to. It just finds a perilously thin dividing line between the kind of Englishman who drives hundreds of kilometers to visit the Cumberland Pencil Museum and the kind who kills anyone who annoys him.
Oram is droll as Chris (moviegoers with long memories may be reminded in more ways than one of Paul Bartel, of “Eating Raoul” fame), but Lowe’s Tina is something special. Meek on the outside, she contains multitudes within — most of them very, very angry — and once her lover introduces her to the gentle art of murder, she turns out to have a gift for improvisation. Chris prefers more forethought, but Tina will have none of it. “Maybe this is my style!” she insists.
The scenery is beautifully photographed, of course, with the bare ridges of the Peaks District especially striking to behold. It’s enough to make you want to visit the Crich Tram Village or the Kimberly Stone Circle yourself. On second thought, stick to the highway.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.