Chances are if you’ve heard the name Ben Wheatley, it’s because he last directed “Kill List,” an indescribable mash-up of horror, crime and kitchen sink English drama, with an unmistakably macabre sense of humor — even when one already battered character’s head is repeatedly pounded with a hammer. His latest, “Sightseers,” is a bit nicer, in that it’s an English camping comedy about a couple (Alice Lowe and Steve Oram) who occasionally murder strangers for no reason.
“I think they were worried I was going to make ‘Kill List 2,’” Wheatley recalls, of a project which existed before he came aboard. He points out he has a history in comedy, on television and in viral videos. “I know how to structure a gag. Comedy’s like a flame that you have to feed with fuel. If it dies it’s very hard to get back. After the hammer scene in ‘Kill List,’ I thought no one would ever laugh again.”
Doing a film with comparatively minor head trauma — although there is some — was a relief after making what he describes as “a really horrible horror film,” at least in the sense of its increasing bleakness, and his having to talk about it at length while promoting it. “I made that film and it made people really unhappy.
“I thought it would be nice if they came out having a laugh and were cheered by something I made,” he says. “It’s not the happiest comedy, ‘Sightseers,’ but it’s a step in the right direction.”
“Sightseers” swings back and forth between comedy — both Lowe and Oram, who wrote the script together, have a deep history in British comedy — and horrible gore, as when one pesky rambler’s face is smashed in. “It’s got a lot in common with [Paul] Verhoeven and ‘[Monty] Python’ stuff,” according to him. “[Terry] Gilliam does that often, going from stuff that’s really horrible to stuff that’s funny and satirical, then back to horror. You feel like you’re being pulled and pushed around. I like that feeling.”
Although he offers that the comedy and horror can become one. In “Sightseers,” the victims are often thoroughly nice. He says, “The more innocent the victim, the funnier it is.”
Wheatley also offers up a theory that comics can, sometimes at least, make better dramatic actors than serious thespians. “The difference between a comedian and an actor is a comedian has the life experience of stand-up comedy. They’ve died in front of audiences a lot. They know what sadness is — for f—ing real. And it’s their own material they’ve died with. That is more personal than being in a play that’s s—.”
It ties into his view on humanity. “I think people are funny, generally,” he states. “Everyone has a sense of humor. They certainly have a sense of humor when things are going wrong. When you make films that are very po-faced, where no one has a laugh, they don’t seem real. People aren’t like that. People aren’t stern and miserablist all the time.”