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

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