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‘Shallow Grave’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 24, 1995

America’s copious outpouring of trendy bloodfest movies -- from "River's Edge" to "Natural Born Killers" -- seems to have inspired a banal, worldwide creativity. From Scotland's chilly shores comes "Shallow Grave," a gleefully amoral tale of three young professionals who joke and josh their way through dismemberment and skull bashing. What counts most in this grisly thriller-cum-black-comedy is jolting audiences out of their cynical complacency.

Flatmates Kerry Fox (a doctor), Christopher Eccleston (an accountant) and Ewan McGregor (a journalist), who thrive on a particularly vicious strain of sarcasm, are looking for a fourth roommate to share their spacious Glasgow apartment. Determined to root out the weedy and incompatible, they reject candidate after candidate -- witheringly too.

Eventually, they settle on Keith Allen, a cool customer who claims to be a writer and seems impervious to their merciless interrogation. Inconveniently, Allen dies of a drug overdose the day after he moves in. But the roommates's initial horror (they are actually shocked for a moment) changes to joy when they discover a suitcase stuffed with 1 million pounds under his bed.

After a halfhearted moral debate, the threesome opts to keep the money. But instead of reporting Allen's death (and letting medics do all the grunt work) and stashing the cash for later (pretending not to have seen it), they decide to bury the corpse themselves. Worried about fingerprints and dental records, they pick up a few appropriate tools at the hardware store and get to grisly work. Let's just say, you'll need a granite-lined stomach for what follows.

Perhaps, you think as you watch the gruesome developments, the reasons for the roommates' flippant spirit will become apparent. Why do they do what they do? Could it be because Glasgow's a tough place to grow up in? (Although, Eccleston claims in the movie's opening narration that this story could have taken place in "any city.") Could it be three cases of abusive childhoods? No, it's simpler than that. Scriptwriter John Hodge and director Danny Boyle give no explanation at all. These happily employed professionals carve their way through flesh and bone just for the money.

There are moments when "Shallow Grave" achieves a harmonic convergence of horror and macabre humor. While the three deliberate over what to do with Allen, they leave his body in the bedroom and go to work. When Fox returns from her shift and sees her roommates home, she asks if the body is still there.

"He's still here," says Eccleston.

"Yeah," says McGregor. "He couldn't get his car started."

This is exactly the kind of weird, sardonic texture the movie is aiming for -- and unfortunately, most of it occurs in the first half of the story. "Shallow Grave" puts itself through a labyrinth of other developments (including goofy comic relief from suspicious detective Ken Stott), which do little more than take up time.

Amazingly, even though most of the attention remains on the roommates and how they deal with the situation (which, of course, gets worse), absolutely nothing (apart from cartoonish, psychological deterioration) is revealed about them. Fox, McGregor and Eccleston merely mill around the screen like the kind of living-dead folks we usually see rising from the grave.

"Shallow Grave" contains grotesque violence, profanity and nudity.

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