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30th Anniversary Big Screen Rewatch – Shallow Grave

I’m sure I’ve said elsewhere that my local cinema has started showing old films as well as new releases. They’ve recently had “Through The Lens” seasons for Spielberg and Kubrick, and other anniversary showings. I’ve just booked tickets for a 25th anniversary screening of The Mummy, there’s an anniversary showing of The Matrix, as well as other random picks. A couple of weeks ago we went for a big screen rewatch of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and, over the years, we’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, Die Hard, Jurassic Park, and the Star Wars original trilogy. Oh…and Superman and Cabaret and loads more.

Sometimes it was a chance to see a film that I’d been unable to see in the cinema because I was too young…not actually born in some cases! Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and It’s A Wonderful Life for example. Other times it is a chance to bring back some memories; the Star Wars rewatch was particularly enjoyable. Going to see Shallow Grave again is a bit of a philosophical, if not actual, blend of the two. By that I mean it will bring back memories from when I first saw it but, being realistic, I’m not the same person now that I was back then. There’s been a fair few houses, jobs, wives, and cars since 1994!

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There’s also been a lot of wine drunk since Shallow Grave came out. There’s a scene early on when the flatmates Alex, David, and Juliet (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, and Kerry Fox) are being introduced to newcomer Hugo (Keith Allen). There on the table is a bottle of Don Darias Rioja…this made me jump! Dear reader, I knew it well. It was oaky, delicious, and cheap. I used to buy it by the case. Throughout the early years of the nineties a night never passed when a brace of those bad boys weren’t dispatched to wine heaven. The appearance of the Don Darias bottle was the whispering straw that broke my long suffering wife’s back. I was quite excited to see Shallow Grave once again.

For those who haven’t seen it, Shallow Grave tells the story of the aforementioned flatmates Alex, David, and Juliet; Alex is a newspaper reporter, David is a chartered accountant, and Juliet is a hospital doctor. They all seem to be quite smug, arrogant and condescending towards the people who turn up to see if they can rent the spare room in the truly enormous flat. Honestly, the front hall is bigger than my living room and my house isn’t exactly small! Eventually Hugo arrives and he can give as good as he gets and has wads of cash as well. He charms Juliet into arranging for him to come and meet the other two which  is when we see the Don Darias.

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Possibly an even better feature is the info on if the movie has after credits scenes. There’s nothing worse than sitting there reading about who the key grip was, then finding out that’s all you did. I blame Marvel for the stupid trend.

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But Juliet, You’re A Doctor. You Kill People Every Day

Hugo gets the tenancy and moves in. He locks his room and keeps himself to himself. So much so that, after a few days, the other three flatmates decide that they need to check up on him. After banging on the door and shouting Alex decides that he must have left but Juliet looks through the keyhole and sees that the key is still in the lock so Hugo must still be in the room. They decide to charge the door and break in to find Hugo sprawled out very naked and very dead on the bed. Juliet goes to phone the police and Alex starts looking around. He finds a stash of drugs which may have contributed to Hugo’s untimely demise.

He also finds a suitcase which he opens and shows to Juliet and this causes her to hang up before she can get through to the authorities. The suitcase is rammed full of cash. Now the flatmates have a dilemma should they call the police and let them take care of it all or should they keep the money. Incidentally, the suitcase contains a million pounds so it an understandable temptation. Alex is all for keeping the money, David is all for calling the police, Juliet isn’t saying too much either way. Before too long they decide that they will keep the cash. However this leads to another problem…Hugo. 

Normally I Don’t Usually Meet People, Unless I Already Know Them

By now Hugo is doubtless starting to get a bit whiffy. He’s been lying in that room for a while and, while I know Edinburgh can get cold in winter, there’s no direct evidence that it is the cooler part of the year. So, Hugo has to go. He also has to be rendered unidentifiable. There then follows a trip to Homebase, B&Q, Wickes, or some other DIY superstore. A roll of heavy plastic, a couple of spades, a variety of saws, and an ominously meaty hammer are bought. Hugo is wrapped up, dragged downstairs, and driven off into the middle of the woods. The eponymous Shallow Grave is dug by Alex. David picks the short straw and has to “anonymise” the body.

This involves cutting off his hands and feet and deleting his dental records using the big hammer. Well, his teeth are rearranged so they won’t match any dental records that are held anywhere. Juliet has snagged a tissue disposal bag from the hospital she works in and manages to sneak Hugo’s hands and feet into the pile of body parts destined for the incinerator. Hooray! Problems all solved let’s go out and spend all that money. Well, Alex and Juliet do just that. They go out and buy expensive video cameras, clothes, champagne, and other toys. David comes home and is not very pleased with this obvious lack of self control. 

Only Three People Here? You’re Sure?

He is annoyed and starts shouting demanding to know how much the camera cost and is told £500. He hisses back at them…“No, no, that’s what you paid for it. £500 is what you paid for it. We don’t know how much it cost us yet. For you two to have a good time, we don’t know the cost of that yet.” It’s the old story of suddenly coming into pots of money by nefarious means…you need to be able to explain how you got it because people will notice and people will ask awkward questions. David is painfully aware of this while Alex and Juliet either don’t know or don’t care. And this is when things start to fall apart for the former friends.

What doesn’t help the situation is Hugo’s former colleagues are looking for him and are quite robust in their information gathering. Bodies are left in their wake as they get ever closer to that huge flat in Edinburgh. There’s a break in two floors down and this spooks David to the point of him turning into a civilian version of Colonel Kurtz and living in the attic. This suits him well when the two men looking for Hugo or, more likely, the money turn up at the flat. A couple of whacks to Alex’s shins and he tells them that the money is in the attic. OK, the whacks were with a crow bar so I’m guessing it stung a bit. 

It’s Not Every Day I Find A Story In My Own Flat

So the two  bad guys go up into the attic and the two bad guys come back down from the attic. However, in between those two events they did have an encounter with David the unhinged accountant. Later Juliet encourages Alex to go up into the attic and talk to David. Alex says… “They went up there alive and came back down dead! Did you notice that? The difference, I mean: alive, dead, dead, alive, that sort of thing? It wasn’t difficult to spot. He killed them both.”  This leads to another round of chopping, sawing, smashing and burying in order to get rid of the two other bad guys.

You’d think by now that all traces would have been wiped away and the threesome can take a deep breath and go back to normal while they think of how to deal with the remaining money. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. While is best to let sleeping dogs lie but buried bad guys tend to get found if you haven’t been assiduous enough with your spade work and this is where the film’s title comes into play. The bodies are found and the police are, naturally, curious. This then leads to the wild madness that is the finale of the film. I’m not going to spoil that bit for you; it is worth a look if only to find out what happens to the three “friends”. 

It’s Not A Story, Alex. It’s A Corpse

So much for the story. What is, perhaps, the hardest thing to reconcile is the legacy and effect that Shallow Grave has had. Things like there being a future Doctor Who and a future Obi-Wan Kenobi in a relatively (≈$2.5million) low budget film. Of course, back then, Doctor Who was on an open ended hiatus and the only Star Wars prequels were in George Lucas’ head. The trio that pick up most of the heavy lifting were relatively unknown. If we take the number of roles undertaken before Shallow Grave as an indication of fame then the biggest star is…drum roll… Hugo! Yes, Keith Allen had racked up thirty four appearances; TV, films, shorts, pop videos, and even his own TV sketch show and live stand up. 

Next up was Ken Stott with fourteen appearances but he also had also had twenty years in the theatre to his name. Next up was Christopher Eccleston with thirteen but one of those was the amazing part of DCI Bilborough in Cracker…that was one hell of a role! Bilborough was really put through the mill. Arguably the current biggest star, Ewan McGregor, had had only four previous roles; two TV series, an eleven minute TV short, and one film. Having said that, his debut TV series was the final Dennis Potter production completed before his death…Lipstick On Your Collar. Ewan was cast six months prior to his graduation from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. 

I’m Not Frightened. I’m A Little Terrified, Maybe

And, of course, Shallow Grave is the big screen directorial debut of the wonderful and versatile Danny Boyle. I’ve said previously how much I like his work. I’ve enjoyed all his films, his NT production of Frankenstein, and his TV series based around the story of the Sex Pistols. As a film director he is exceptionally versatile. Social dramas like Trainspotting, T2: Trainspotting, or Millions.Science fiction such as Sunshine, Horror like 28 Days Later. Biography like Steve Jobs and 127 Hours. And we haven’t mentioned Yesterday, The Beach, or the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire.  Oh…and if all that lot didn’t demonstrate his versatility he made a cracking job of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Looking back, it seems ludicrous to think that there was a time when the combined pulling power of Danny Boyle, Ewan McGregor, and Christopher Eccleston couldn’t guarantee a film getting financed. However, after they spent half of the budget on building the set for the flat,  things were so tight that they had to auction off a variety of props in order to raise the money to buy film stock needed to finish filming. So it must have been gratifying when Shallow Grave turned out to be the most commercially successful British film of 1995 bringing in nearly twenty million dollars worldwide…ten times the production budget. 

It’s A Sick Idea Alex. It’s Sick

And is it a good film or is it just notable for being the jumping off point for so many careers?  Personally, I think that it is a wonderful film. From the kinetic filming techniques, the sound track, the performances, and the storyline it is awesome. It’s not just me though, it won fourteen awards across Europe including the Alexander Korda Award for Best British film. It was also Danny Boyle’s father’s favourite film. When asked what he thought of Slumdog Millionaire he said that it was good but no Shallow Grave! Happy 30th birthday, Shallow Grave.

Movie Grade: A+

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