It’s fitting that Ben Wheatley was born in 1972, the year of “Deliverance”, “Frenzy” and “The Last House on the Left”, because each of his features to date suggests in its own way a strange combination of all three. He shares Boorman’s sense of dread and foreboding, Hitchcock’s murder-mystery precision, and Craven’s flair for horror movie misanthropy, the lot of it shot through with dark humor and a sensibility at once Hollywood-friendly and very, very British. Wheatley is, in other words, a singular copycat artist, omnivorously devouring reference points and spitting out something remarkably new. Because while his inspirations may be obvious—at least to those well-versed in English crime movies, screwball comedies and exploitative slashers—the results are nevertheless very much his own, authored by a voice that’s quickly proving itself the most distinctive and important in modern horror.
Wheatley’s latest film, the quintessentially Wheatlianly titled “A Field in England”, premieres in the U.K. in early July, but North American fans—who have already grown accustomed to remaining perpetually a year behind—will no doubt need to wait a while before it makes its way to U.S. shores (editor’s note: It was announced today that Drafthouse Films has acquired the rights to “A Film in England,” and will release it in the US this year). This weekend, however, sees the long-delayed American release of Wheatley’s previous effort, the comic-horror road movie “Sightseers”, which premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes last year. “Sightseers” represents as ideal an introduction to the style of its director as one could hope for: beginning as a kind of kitchen-sink dramedy in which a young couple take their RV for a summer trip across the Yorkshire moors, the film gradually transforms from its unassuming Mike Leigh-lite roots into a bizarre cavalcade of hillside carnage, the couple flipping the switch from laid-back and bickering to crazed and murderous so quickly one hardly notices the change.
Those already familiar with Wheatley’s work, of course, aren’t liable to find this sudden tonal shift so jarring or unexpected, since changing the rules of the game in the middle of play has been the director’s go-to gimmick from the start. His debut feature, “Down Terrace”, walked a precarious line between darkly comic and just plain dark, offering uproarious punchlines about as often as it served up brutal murders. (Its best gag finds a hitman-for-hire questioned in earnest about how he finds work: “Do you have a web presence?”) But this tendency to send jokes crashing into brutality isn’t simply a matter of putting an audience ill at ease (though it does indeed do that); with Wheatley the suggestion is always that horror and humor naturally go hand in hand, and the points his draws from that observation—most often biting social criticism—resonate all the more for being packaged in bait-and-switch visceral effect.
Wheatley’s masterpiece to date is “Kill List”, his second feature, in a walk. The film follows two schlubby British contract killers struggling to get back in the murder-for-hire saddle after undergoing some unspecified trauma during a mission in Kiev. For its first hour-plus, the film proceeds as a fairly unexceptional (if decidedly graphic) sort of kitchen-sink potboiler, a brisk crime picture more interested in parcelling out wall-splattered skull parts and brain matter than requisite narrative information. But as the vaguely occult-related intrigue surrounding their daily routine mounts—beginning with a suggestive symbol hand-drawn on the back of a mirror by an acquaintance at a dinner party and consistently reinforced by ominous cues on the soundtrack—the film seems increasingly at risk of slipping away from itself, ever on the verge of descending into someone’s personal nightmare.
And then, of course, it does. Much as “Sightseers” careens suddenly from friendly to fierce, “Kill List” summarily torpedoes the structure and security of its first two acts in order to play about in the wreckage through the third. When a planned hit takes our two anti-heroes into contact with a pagan procession straight out of “The Wicker Man”, their interruption of the ritual causes a similar disruption to the very fabric of the film itself, until what was once a crime thriller comes to resemble “Lost Highway” by way of “Silent Hill”. A chase through a run-down sewer tunnel at night—in which a seemingly endless line of masked and naked pagans sprint towards the hitmen while screaming unintelligibly—is, without exaggeration, the scariest thing that I have experienced across more than two decades as a moviegoer, and it’s a testament to Wheatley’s abilities that something so scary emerged from a film that, for the majority of its running time, doesn’t even qualify as horror. That, more than anything, makes him a master of the genre unlike just about anyone else: he understands that fear isn’t beholden to the conventions of the form, and that sometimes, in order to tap into what terrifies us, you have to go the long way around.
"Sightseers" opens in theaters in NY & LA tomorrow, and will be available on VOD starting Monday.
It is awesome.