Shallow Grave - Featured

The New Old: Cults of Personality

Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994) – Two years before knocking the world on its ass with the darkly comic heroin romp Trainspotting, Danny Boyle kicked in the door to the British film industry with Shallow Grave. Well, more specifically he did it with his then close collaborators producer Andrew MacDonald and screenwriter John Hodge. Though Boyle has gone on two revive zombies and win Oscars, there was something about his partnership with MacDonald and Hodge that had a certain feel unlike his subsequent (and often excellent) efforts. The three upstart filmmakers brought something that was lacking in British film at the time. It was an era defined by stately Merchant/Ivory productions and Jane Austin adaptations, which Shallow Grave couldn’t be farther from. Taking cues from the relentless, kinetic style of 90s Scorsese and the pitch black comedy of early Coen Brothers movies, the film was a nasty, violent thriller laced with gallows humor (at one point the script was appropriately titled Cruel). It’s a first endeavor that’s expertly crafted with a tone that would be expanded on in the zeitgeist defining follow up. This is one of those impressive debuts that can’t be ignored and kicks off careers. A hit almost everywhere outside North America in 1994, thankfully the good folks at Criterion are here to try and set that one straight.

The plot is the kind of minimalist well-oiled machine required to launch a low budget genre flick. Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, and Kerry Fox star as three snobby flatmates in an impressive Edinburgh apartment. They have that sick brand of insular friendship that dismisses everyone outside of the collective, and the film opens with them taking delight in interviewing potential fourth flatmates almost purely to insult them. They eventually find someone cool enough for the room, but unfortunately he dies during his first night in the flat. The three nosy roomies snoop around the room and discover a suitcase full of cash under the corpse. A decision is made to keep the cash and dispose of the body rather than dealing with authorities and whatnot. To avoid identification and getting caught, they decide to chop off the body’s hands and feet and smash in his face with a hammer(a bit extreme, but there you go). Eccleston draws the shortest straw and has to do the dirty dead, which gradually and understandably drives him insane. He hides the cash from his spend quick partners and takes up residence in the attic where he can spy on his former friends 24 hours a day. Seems a little excessive, but proves to be a decent enough idea when some thugs inevitably swing by the flat looking for the cash (people normally notice when that amount of money disappears).

The film takes cues from classics like Treasure of the Sierra Madre for a greed-corrupts-all tale set against the backdrop of the money hungry Thatcher era. Of course, that’s just subtext and only there for those looking for it. Primarily, its twisted thriller filled with heart palpitation suspense and fantastic performances from the three leads (especially the terrifyingly twisted work of Eccleston) who start as comedy partners and end as murderous enemies. Boyle’s hyper-kinetic visual style emerges fully formed in his first feature while Ewan McGregor made it clear he was a movie star from his debut. It’s unsurprising that the duo were the breakout Hollywood successes from the group, yet the unsung hero of the movie is probably writer John Hodge. With a morbid wit and a clinical approach to violence founded in years working as a doctor before joining showbiz, Hodge has a distinctly dark comedic tone and a genuine skill for terse, breakneck storytelling (who else could have converted Irvine Welsh’s sprawling, episodic Trainspotting into a 90 minute joyride). Hodge and Boyle were a perfect duo who sadly split up when the latter went to Hollywood and the former returned to medicine. Boyle’s made some great movies since, but nothing quite like his work with Hodge. The pair actually just reunited for the first time in over a decade for the upcoming thriller Trance and god willing it will recapture some of their depraved comedy magic.

Criterion’s Blu-ray treats Shallow Grave like the classic it should be. The transfer is incredible, giving new life to Boyle’s ever roaming camera (even if some cracks in the low budget production design are revealed as well). The special features are headlined by a typically motor-mouth commentary from Boyle covering ever facet of the production and a second track from Hodge and MacDonald that’s just as informative, if less excited. Freshly shot interviews with McGregor, Eccleston, and Fox reveal three actors who clearly adored the tight knit production (apparently the three of them and Boyle shared a apartment before production to rehearse and build their relationships) and are nostalgic for their simpler time in their respective careers. Perhaps most fascinating are two vintage video documentaries on the production from Andrew MacDonald’s brother Kevin (Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland) who was booted off the movie in favor of the more experienced Boyle and shot the making of doc instead. It’s a candid, thorough account of a low budget production rarely ever captured and a perfect way to round out a stellar package for a deeply underrated film that deserves a North American cult. Buy a copy and start one today please.

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Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971) – Much like The Graduate, if Harold and Maude didn’t exist chances are Wes Anderson wouldn’t have a career, and by extension, the current indie comedy landscape would be dramatically different. The humor is dry enough to make old man Bill Murray jealous and huge, important chunks of the plot are doled out in montages underscored exclusively with Cat Stevens songs. The movie has a lot to answer for, having essentially created a genre of quirk fests about dopy depressed guys revitalized by philosophical, manic women, but just like Halloween’s awkward relationship with a decade of slasher twaddle, you can’t damn the original because of the nauseating knock offs. This is also one of the original cult movies that was slaughtered by critics and actively ignored by audiences at the time of release, only to be gleefully (even obsessively) embraced overtime. If you haven’t seen it, Jesus, get on that. If you have, the good news is that Criterion took charge to give the classic a definitive home video treatment at long last.

For the unfamiliar, Harold (Bud Cort) is a deeply depressed n’ lost 19-year-old rich boy who spends his days faking suicides and annoying his computer dating matches to torture his controlling mother. Maude (Ruth Gordon) is an 80-year-old spark of light and authority-bashing who meets Harold during one of his regular pilgrimages to funerals and decides to teach him to love life (and eventually to love sweet, sweet naked old lady flesh). It’s undeniably one of the strangest love stories ever told, yet also one of the sweetest and most truthful. Somehow the old/young loving never feels creepy. It’s entirely natural within the context of this oddball vision pulled out of 60s free love and 70s cynicism. Curt and Gordon have never been better as a ying/yang of insular sadness and exuberant joy. The whole thing hangs together thanks to the delicate yet stylized touch of Hal Ashby (possibly the most underrated director of the 70s who cranked out a variety of tales of lost outsiders during that decade like The Last Detail or Being There before losing his career and eventually life to a pile of white powder in the 80s). Despite all of the imitators, there’s still no movie quite like Harold And Maude, which finds a surprising balance between dark laughs and heartfelt drama without ever conforming to predictable narrative structures.

Given that all of the major Harold and Maude creative players (Gordon, Ashby, screenwriter Colin Higgins) are dead and Bud Cort is a bit of a recluse, Criterion had a difficult task pulling together a worthy special edition Blu-ray. Somehow, they pulled it off. The transfer presents the film in its finest ever visual quality without losing the 70s grain and soft focus that defines Ashby’s aesthetic. Yusuf Islam (a.k.a. Cat Stevens) provides a brief, yet insightful interview about his contribution to the film. Audio excerpts from seminars held by Ashby and Higgins about the film let them throw in their two cents from beyond the grave (oooooo, scary), while a commentary from Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and Producer Charles B. Mulvehill fill in any other gaps about the production. To round things off Criterion included an even weightier booklet than usual featuring a 1971 New York Times profile on Gordon, interviews with producer Mildred Lewis (who Higgins worked for as a pool boy/driver while writing the script), Bud Cort, and cinematographer John Alonzo. Between all that there’s little about the film that isn’t covered and even though reading is required, this is a damn satisfying set that proves why Criterion is the best in the business at this sort of thing. It’s a loving Blu-ray package for a justifiably beloved gem.

Hondo (John Farrow, 1953) – Movies are still filled with dude’s dudes like the great Jason Statham, but there’s only one star who qualifies as the man of dudes’ dudes. That is of course John Wayne, a superstar who almost single handedly dragged Westerns out of the movie serial ghetto and proved that B-movies needed be tossed off B-projects. The freshly re-released Hondo is a John Wayne cowboy picture made at the peak of his powers. The older and more grizzled he got, the better he suited his signature roles. The film came just before Wayne’s final and finest masterpieces like The Searchers, Rio Bravo, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, providing a populist Western without any of the antihero psychology or subtle genre deconstruction that made those final movies so fascinating. Yet, it’s still a slick, stylish, and intelligently crafted flick from director John Farrow (with a final battle ghost directed by John Ford) that embodies the innocence, grit, and pure boyish fun of the genre.

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Wayne stars as Hondo Layne, a classic Western archetype who wanders the countryside and discovers a lonely farm that is home to a single mother Lowe (Geraldine Page) and her son Johnny (Lee Aaker). She claims her husband is away gathering livestock, but Wayne knows he’s probably dead and decides to step in as a surrogate father like any proper Hollywood macho male icon would. Then he discovers that their farm is in the middle of a warpath between spurned Native Americans and white men who reneged on a land deal. Wayne being Wayne, he decides he’s gotta set that whole mess straight too. It’s pretty simple Western stuff that plays out exactly as satisfyingly as you’d expect. Wayne of course does his strutting, broad shouldered hero thing well, Farrow frames the characters in the gorgeous desert vistas that defined the genre, while Wayne’s favorite screenwriter James Edward Grant gave the film a little more psychological complexity in the characters and a few extra Wayne zingers than required. Hondo is not a vital or genre-defining Western, but is more than entertaining enough to be worth a look for even casual fans of the genre.

Paramount’s new Blu-ray is worth picking up for the transfer alone (which is a good thing, since all the special features come ported from an old DVD). Something about old Technicolor film stock really shines in HD. It might not offer the clarity of contemporary films, but the rich, stylized, almost unnatural colors glow in a way that is truly intoxicating. The only downside is that the movie was originally shot during the first Hollywood 3D trend (filled with shots of horses jumping over the camera or guns fired at the lens to prove it), but the disc wasn’t prepped for 3D TVs nor does it include old school red/blue glasses either. Thankfully, much like today’s blockbusters, the 3D was always an afterthought chasing a box office trend rather than an important part of the visual design, so the movie woks just fine. Don’t be surprised if this and other old school 3D movies like Dial M for Murder start getting repackaged for those fancy new 3D TVs soon. In fact, I’d imagine that’s the only reason Hondo got an HD upgrade over a few more popular John Wayne titles still awaiting a fresh release. The special features include a commentary and a few documentaries hosted/moderated by Leonard Maltin. They are all about as informative/dry as you’d expect from Maltin, but it’s a bit disappointing that nothing new was pulled out of the archives for this Blu-ray.

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