Before Trainspotting there was Shallow Grave, Scotland’s filmic John the Baptist if you like. The 1980s had been pretty barren in terms of Scottish cinema, Bill Forsyth aside. Even those films that were being made, such as the previously featured Restless Natives and Soft Top, Hard Shoulder (see Restless Natives and Soft Top, Hard Shoulder, rarely seen…) did not do significant box office. By the early 90s the term Scottish Film Industry could almost have been seen as one that belonged to another age. Many credit the success of all things Trainspotting as having revived it, but that film would not have been made, at least as it was, if it was not for the team of Boyle, Hodges and MacDonald’s earlier success. The Scottish film industry needed something to wake it up, and that something was Shallow Grave.
Like Trainspotting it is an ensemble piece, and the casting is spot on. Ewan McGregor is perfect as the arrogant and self obsessed Alex, turning his shit eating grin up to eleven, but he is more than matched by Kerry Fox as Juliet, who plays with Alex like a cat playing with a particularly smug mouse. The real standout is Christopher Eccleston as David, who portrays a man losing his mind with restrained glee (and yes, that is possible). This was before his career making roles in Cracker and Our Friends in the North, but it was clear from Shallow Grave, and his role as Derek Bentley in 1991’s underrated film Let Him Have It, that this was a hugely talented actor, someone who can make you feel sympathy and repulsion in the same scene. Some may say that David’s decent into madness is too fast to be realistic, but Eccleston manages to hint that this unravelling has begun long before the audience meets him. Here’s the trailer, which is one of those annoying ones that almost gives the film away, so be warned:
But this is director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew MacDonald and writer John Hodge’s film. From the strains of Leftfield and the cinematic rush through the streets of Edinburgh’s New Town of the titles we are made aware that this is a thoroughly modern movie. The opening scenes where the three flatmates interview prospective new lodgers has been often copied, for instance it is currently used to advertise sweeties, but never bettered and the use of their flat as a prop to heighten the tension is something that Hitchcock would be proud of. This was a piece of film making that used the techniques that had been developed for music videos and advertising, and a contemporary soundtrack, to great effect.
But this was not a case of style over substance. Make no mistake, this is a genuine horror/thriller movie. Some of the scenes would not be out of place in the Saw movies, but it is so much more than mere shock and awe. It is also a comment on the corrupting power of money. The central characters are all unlikeable right from the start, a brave move that was pretty rare at the time in mainstream movies. While it makes their subsequent actions believable, it does mean that you are willing them to receive their inevitable comeuppance. This sadistic voyeurism is another classic horror motif that lifts the film from pedestrian drama. Shallow Grave does not make for comfortable viewing.
As a debut film this is incredibly assured, although its importance is only clear with the benefit of hindsight. It is certainly debatable that Trainspotting would have been handed to this team without it, and I shiver when I think what a disaster that film could have been in other hands. Obviously most of the main players have gone on to greater success but there is something about Shallow Grave that is a little rough around the edges, and that’s a good thing. By the time they got to Trainspotting you can tell that there was a lot more money to play with and if I have any criticism of that film it is that it is a little too polished. But that debate is for another day.