Shallow Grave

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


There’s something grimly enjoyable about watching wretched people tear themselves to shreds. And I think a lot of people would agree with me. How else to account for the success of reality TV programmes such as Big Brother and Survivor? We all like to sit back and watch people stab one another in the back as we tut-tut from our sofas. If anything it makes us feel better about ourselves. Yes we may stumble home late at night and vomit in the baby’s crib because we drank 15 pints of lager at the pub, but at least we’re not animals.

The three central characters in Shallow Grave have to be amongst the most despicable in cinema. They’re big-headed, they’re obnoxious and they’re bullies. In short, they’re wankers. But worse than that, they’re yuppie wankers. They live in a large flat, they all have decent jobs and they probably all earn a decent wage. But they still need another flatmate to help pay the rent.

The opening sequence sees the three yuppies humiliate, embarrass and toy with a bunch of prospective flatmates. Already you can feel the hate swelling inside your stomach. You want one of these people to stand up to these smug bastards. But no one does. Everyone runs off with their tail between their legs.

And then Hugo enters the picture. Played by Keith Allen, he’s a cool customer who isn’t intimidated when he enters the yuppie sanctum. He just casually walks around and talks about a novel he’s writing. And then when he comes back for a second interview, he doesn’t bat an eyelid when poindexter accountant David (Christopher Eccleston) asks him whether he’s ever killed anyone. It’s a strange line of questioning; a bit different from asking whether he has any pets or if he has a steady income. But Hugo simply says no, gets the flat and then promptly dies. They don’t even get to find out whether he leaves the toilet seat up or not.

As you’d expect, the three flatmates aren’t exactly crushed that their new pal has snuffed it. Ghoulish David is fascinated by the dead body, Alex (Ewan McGregor) is excited at the prospect of having a story in his own flat and Juliet (Kerry Fox) is perhaps perturbed for a second or two, but then a suitcase full of money turns up and she’s all smiles again. She can get over the fact that she’ll never add a Hugo-shaped notch to her bedpost once she realises that she has ready cash to keep her warm at night.

Even though the characters in the film are complete scum, the film is funny, and one of the funniest images is of the main characters going about their lives as Hugo rots in his room. How fucked in the head do you have to be when you can eat your breakfast and watch TV as a man decomposes in his bedroom? And then there’s the wonderful line when David confronts Juliet about the body and she gleefully says that she’s getting used to having him around. The complete disregard for the sanctity of human life is astounding (and amusing).

But eventually Hugo begins to get a bit stinky – Alex seems exasperated by this; their wonderful new flatmate is being awfully inconsiderate. Therefore they have to dispose of him. The initial idea is that everyone will take part in the disposal, but they all get cold feet – they want the money but they don’t want to get their hands dirty. So they draw lots. And would you believe it, the timorous accountant is the one who pulls the short straw. He has to do everything.

But what constitutes everything? Well, he has to saw Hugo’s limbs off and then he has to smash his teeth out. And the scenes that deal with this are wonderfully grisly. We don’t actually see any graphic detail, but the noises are horrendous. We hear the saw cutting through bone and then we hear the hammer smashing Hugo’s teeth. It really does make you wince.

Needless to say, David isn’t quite the same after this experience. When he’s having dinner, he says that food tastes different now. Yeah, I think chopping someone into little pieces would do that. But even more worryingly, he moves into the loft. He takes time off work and spends his days switching a torch on and off. He seems fascinated by smothering the light. Obviously what little light there was in his dull, weasely body has been extinguished.

But although the body disposal is incredibly grisly, there are other horrors in the film. From time to time we see a couple of men torturing various individuals in order to gather information – they’re after Hugo and the money he has. And the scenes with these guys are magnificently nasty. The first time we see them they ram a man’s head into a cash machine. Although I do have to say that this scene makes me laugh somewhat – it’s filmed from the cash machine’s perspective, so the ramming of the man’s head into the camera is rather comic.

Other scenes, though, are decidedly unamusing. There’s a scene where the two men drown a guy to obtain the information they need. They have his hands tied behind his back and the water is full of blood, and after a long interrogation he eventually succumbs. Then the men walk off and begin laughing. The scene is ice cold. And speaking of things being ice cold, there’s the scene where they put a man in a freezer. They wear him down until he talks, and then they put ice on top of the freezer lid so that he can’t get out – he’s far too weak to push it off. For some reason I always consider it one of the worst screen deaths I’ve seen – it’s just the thought of it.

Therefore it’s somewhat satisfying that they meet David and he kills them. For the briefest of moments, you like the yuppie bastard.

But one thing still bothers me about the two men. We see them gathering information, but then they somehow stumble upon Hugo’s dumped car – Alex pushes it into some water earlier on in the film. There was no one there when he did it, so how did the two men end up finding the vehicle? But maybe it’s best not to think too hard about that and some of the gaps in logic. The movie would unravel quite badly if it was put under really close scrutiny. What matters is that it works as a black comedy.

The thriller elements, though, aren’t always as successful as the dark humour. Some of the scenes are really tense – anything to do with the two murderers – but the fight at the end is clumsy as hell; the choreography is poor and the score is atrocious. Thank Christ then that the end has such a great twist. The vile Juliet, who throughout the movie aligns herself with every alpha male (she starts off with Alex, but moves into David’s loveshack in the loft when he becomes the boss), hammers a knife into Alex’s shoulder and takes the money. Girls are really doing it for themselves, aren’t they?

But her joy doesn’t last for long. Magnificently scored to Andy Williams’ ‘Happy Heart’, we find out that the suitcase is full of newspapers. We then see that Alex has the money under the floorboards. Yes Alex is a complete wanker, but at least the most charismatic and joyfully disgusting of the lot has got the money. You know that he won’t become a better person because of this experience, but because he has the wits that the others lack, you end up not begrudging him his blood money. He ended up earning every penny.

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2 comments

  1. Great review Ricky. I agree with your thoughts regarding the ending, brilliantly scored and actually quite hilarious. Just the look on Fox's face is priceless.

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