review by Robert Emmett Murphy, Jr.

Back in 2004, Bravo produced “100 Scariest Movie Moments” a celebration of horror film. Not surprisingly, a number of the “horror” films were more rightly “crime thrillers.” This is one of those.

“Shallow Grave” (1994)

Danny Boyle’s much lauded directing career has demonstrated remarkable inventiveness, not only in his approach to story-telling, but his clear impatience with staying for any significant period in any genre. Of his 10 feature films, only two could be placed in the horror category, they are wildly removed from each other–an epic, post-apocalyptic road-movie cum Zombie flick vs a tightly focused psychological thriller set largely in one apartment. Both have made this list, “28 Days Later,” (2002, and #100 on this list) and this is one of them.

boy4“Shallow Grave” is in fact Boyle’s first feature, but he’d already earned tremendous accolades for his TV work. Here, he references Hitchcock but infuses it with dark and corrupt sardonics more akin to the Coen Brothers. It takes on a familiar but always delicious scenario: a small group of seemingly normal, reasonable people, who think they know each other, and think they know themselves, are offered an unexpected opportunity, which is slightly felonious, but seemingly harmless. Then there’s a complication, and soon all prove how shallow their morality and decency really are. This variant also exploits a situation all too familiar to most of the audience, and therefore the tensions become that much more palatable:

“What on earth could make you think we’d want to share a flat like this with someone like you?”

boyJuliet (played by Kerry Fox who would go on to win much acclaim and several awards for her work in indie film and TV) Alex (Ewan McGregor, who would go on be come an international super-star and sex symbol), and David (Christopher Eccleston, hasn’t become a house-hold name, but got to be Doctor Who for one season, and McGregor can’t touch that) are roommates in a flat to die for (pardon the pun). They seem to like each other, though David does get the short end of the stick.

Time comes that they need a fourth roomie for financial reasons. The first hint that they are not collectively ready for real-world responsibility is their handling of the roommate selection process: the above quoted line is from their interviews of potential roommates; they are amazingly rude to wholly innocent strangers. Then, the final selection is made impulsively by Juliet without consultation among all three.

That guy doesn’t last long. He dies of a drug over-dose, leaving a suit case of seemingly untraceable cash behind. It was all Alex’s bright idea: This is found money, money from heaven, and they would be fools to pass up a chance. It’s easy; all they have to do is quietly dispose of the body.

Which means cutting it up. But no one wants to do the dirty work. They debate it, but eventually Juliet has leave for work, she’s a doctor.

When she comes home she’s informed by David, “He’s [the dead guy’s] still here.”

“Yeah,” says Alex, “He couldn’t get his car started.”

You see, Alex and David are wimps. They think the girl should do the job. She refuses, she’s a girl. Says Alex, “But Juliet – you’re a doctor! You kill people every day!”

boy2This is all pretty light and cheerful even with the dead body in the next room, but when they actually try to execute an effective action, the whole tone changes. In the memorable dismemberment/burial scene, Alex and Juliet bully David into doing the work, which he is clearly not emotionally prepared for. It’s just the first of several sequences which display Doyle’s unusually creative and stylish taste for the dark stuff.

Back in the flat, the three grow paranoid. Quiet, sensitive, David, is the one who becomes most twisted, but at the same time the only one willing to think in terms of survival instead of blind venial greed and selfishness. As he disintegrates emotionally, he retreats into a crawl space in the ceiling with the cash, becoming progressively more rat-like as he drills holes in the ceiling so he can spy on the activities below.

This bizarrely enough, is a good thing, because he’s the only one prepared when criminals come looking for the money.

The body count mounts.

boy3It first started as a twisted morality tale, where the vice of greed isn’t condemned nearly as much as the immaturity and cowardlyness of Alex and Juliet. Their weakness is in part responsible for the mental disintegration of David, who is really the best of the sorry trio. But that wasn’t nearly twisted enough for Boyle’s taste. This film is one of the most perfectly amoral works of art I have ever seen, and though all will suffer, the degree that each suffers is in almost exact reverse proportion to how venial and conniving that person actually was.

 

 

Click below to view Robert Emmett Murphy’s review of “Pacific Heights.

“Pacific Heights” Movie Review by Robert Emmett Murphy, Jr.

 

 

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