Never rob your own grave

Newcomers steal from their elders, a veteran cannibalises himself. Adam Mars-Jones knows where the bodies are buried. Plus round-up

Shallow Grave is a British thriller of great assurance and fair accomplishment. The setting is a mixture of Edinburgh and Glasgow, the film thereby qualifying for a grant from the Scottish Film Production Fund, but the narrative values are bracin gly American. The writer, John Hodge, whose first script this is, may have had the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple in mind for this tale of greed and double dealing, and the director, Danny Boyle, seems to allude to their Miller's Crossing in his opening seq uence,which alternates speeded up images of the city with slow tracking shots of an ominously empty wood.

The three main characters are Yuppies who share a desirable flat and are conducting interviews - more like auditions, really - for another room-mate. They are two men and a woman, and there is a certain amount of romantic tension between them, but this is not Jules and Jim. In fact, they are quite startlingly unpleasant, and it is perhaps not a good idea to start the film with scenes where they systematically humiliate the applicants for the room. We are much more likely to identify with the victims onthe sofa than with the smugly cruel residents, who seem to think it would be a great privilege for anyone to be allowed to share their space.

Their space is certainly more covetable than their company. There are pointy green lampshades and masks decoratively displayed. There is a stylish chair even in the bathroom. It takes a little while for the camera to show us that the residents do not always live up to their surroundings, in a way that might strike you as endearing if you were their mother or a saint. Juliet (Kerry Fox) has a weakness for Hello! magazine, and Alex (Ewan McGregor) is not wholly a stranger to the Pot Noodle. Only David (Christopher Eccleston), the accountant, is too buttoned up to show any such consumer weakness.

The successful applicant, Hugo, brings with him temptation and danger. Keith Allen, who plays the part, has bags of screen presence by now, and displays it even when naked and unmoving on a bed, wrapped in fabric of the colour called Caravaggio red in paintings but which looks more like Jarman red in a film. The three must decide what to do with the opportunity he offers, and their lives are never the same again.

If only John Hodge had been able to make us believe in their decision, Shallow Grave would be an implacable little construction. As it is, the film is a thumbscrew with no screw, an Iron Maiden with no lid. It seems simply absurd that no one at any stagesays: "Why don't we do A - which we all desire - without doing B, which will leave us with blood under our fingernails and memories we can never shake off?"

They're in a great hurry to embrace the fate that the script has in store for them.

The director stages the consequences of the fatal decision with enough force for us to forget that we don't believe a word of it for seconds and even minutes at a time. The violence in the film, in particular, is briskly and harshly managed, without eit h er half-heartedness or gloating. But a little further along, cogency starts falling apart for good. Unfollowable trails become obvious from one moment to the next, and the police too are transformed from bumbling goons to masters of logical thought. Audi ences for a thriller are essentially sheep, very willing to be herded into the appropriate pen of narrative and emotion, but the best way to get them there is not actually to run at them flapping your hands. And that is why we pay successful sheepdogssu ch notoriously high fees for their work.

Meanwhile in Hollywood, Wes Craven has come up, as a 10th anniversary present for us or more likely himself, with Wes Craven's New Nightmare. In this highly self referential exercise, Heather Langenkamp, star of the first Nightmare on Elm Street and these days bearing a pleasing resemblance to our own Koo Stark, plays sort-of herself. She's a mother now, and anxious about the effects of horror films on the young, so she is trying to put her Nightmare period behind her - which doesn't stop her f r om getting menacing phone calls from someone claiming to be Freddy Krueger, old Razor Knuckles himself.

Craven wrote and directed only the first of the Nightmare series, and seems to think that a noble thing has been progressively debased. This New Nightmare is his attempt to reformulate an old hit without simply repeating it. But in fact what made the original film so successful, and so influential, was that with its wild basic situation (bogie man chases young folk in their dreams, and if he catches them before they wake up they really die) it licensed any amount of trashy surprises. The lo g ics of plot and character have never been overwhelmingly rigorous in horror films, but now they could submit altogether to the logic of dream. There was nothing new about the Chinese-box narrative structure, except that it wasn't necessary any more to cl ose any of the boxes. This refusal to return to a previous level of reality was once the hallmark of the avant-garde, so in a sense the first Nightmare was the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie of slasher movies. But even before the sequels, the film wa s alreadybeginning to fall victim, with its mechanical alternation of suburban tedium and grotesque gore, to the law of diminishing returns.

Craven puts in a cameo appearance of considerable awkwardness, wandering round a luxurious apartment that (presumably) Freddy built with views of the huge swimming pool that Freddy likewise dug, and theorising inanely about horror in life and in art. ("When the story dies, the evil gets free . . .") He is writing the script of the film that we're seeing, including the scene in which he shows us the script - Pirandello or what? The only way Heather can exorcise Freddy is by playing the part of "Nancy" again, luring him back into fiction. She must make the supreme sacrifice of submitting to typecasting.

So what we get in practice is a sort of compilation of Freddy's greatest hits. His trademark glove of straight razors has been redesigned to seem more like a predator's talons, but they still make the same unreassuring noise when scraped along brick. Remember the marshmallow stares from that first Nightmare? The twizzle-like extending arms? The invisibly impaled bodies being dragged up walls and across ceilings? They're all here for your pleasure.

The dialogue is just bad enough ("What's going on here? Your hair's turning grey") to suggest an element of self-parody.

There's a television news announcement about mutilated bodies being discovered in a vacant field that may linger in the mind longer than anything else in the film. What the hell is a vacant field? And there is a line spoken by a morgue attendant that cansafely be nominated for Daffiest Speech of the Year, even this early in 1995: "Sometimes it's what we don't see that gets us through the night."

n All films open tomorrow

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect