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30 Years Since Shallow Grave Made The Concept of Housemates Terrifying

6 min read
The cast of Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave.

“Just about any stranger could have turned up nine months later. We might as well have left the door unlocked.” Not a description of present-day cohabitation but how protagonist Eva describes the conception of her future-serial killer child in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. Remove the ‘nine months’ reference and you could readily apply that metaphor to twenty-first century flat sharing. The concept of living with a total stranger is something we often take for granted — part and parcel of contemporary city living to save a quid on rent whilst hopefully making a new friend or two – so commonplace now that we never stop to question the frankly bizarre nature of it. No film represents the abject weirdness of this modern invention better than Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this month.


Shallow Grave opens with a trio of nauseating housemates, Alex, David and Juliet, living together in a spacious Edinburgh flat and searching for a fourth addition to their troupe. After carrying out a series of gruelling “interviews” where they cajole, bully and humiliate their potential future flatmates, they settle on the similarly obnoxious Hugo (Keith Allen). Shortly after he moves in, they find him dead from an apparent drug overdose, leaving behind a suitcase stashed with a substantial amount of cash. Rather than reporting Hugo’s death to the authorities, the friends opt to keep the money and dispose of the body (sidenote: in a particularly gruesome way). This decision sets off a rapidly spiralling series of events, leading to paranoia and mistrust between them, and ultimately violent confrontations.


Cohabitation has always been a thing, though in bygone eras, it was rooted in those you already knew — extended families, servants, apprentices. Across the twentieth century, the two World Wars led to housing shortages and economic constraints, and the growth of communal living spaces as a result of significant urbanisation. Higher education expanded, seeing more students leaving home and sharing university accommodation or as part of the countercultural movement of the 60s and 70s, but it remained a concept engaged with by only a niche few. It was really the economic necessity of it in the 80s and 90s that set cohabitation soaring into the mainstream. Gen X was effectively the first generation where this phenomenon was the norm, living with strangers as never before. Films and TV shows had a concrete challenge ahead — if they wanted to appeal to the 18-35 demographic of the age, they’d need to address the topic onscreen.


Although the reasons for it are linked to dwindling economic situations and escalating house prices, the portrayal of flat sharing in film and TV has generally been positive. Sitcoms have had the monopoly on it for time immemorial, as far back as 1970’s The Odd Couple. Ricky Gervais once said sitcoms are always about a “family” of some kind who are stuck with each other, and this inability to escape is where the humour lies. Consequently, enforced cohabitation seems a ripe backdrop for comedy. Friends was the obvious kingpin of roommate-themed comedy, dominating TV ratings and Netflix subscriptions to this day, but the 90s and 2000s saw a plethora of them in roaringly popular fare — This Life, Men Behaving Badly, Spaced and Peep Show. Many of these tended to mimic the Odd Couple format, deriving comedy from opposites living together – Chandler and Joey in Friends, Jack Black and Colin Hanks in Orange County, Rhys Ifans and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. Sometimes these flatmates would bring out each other’s worst qualities – Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann in Withnail & I and Shaun and Ed in Shaun of the Dead. The era saw this extend into reality TV with the advent of two of the most successful reality shows of all time, The Real World and Big Brother.


Strangely, the concept of roommates as a source of horror hasn’t been explored too extensively in film. (Perhaps audiences actively engaged in flat sharing aren’t thrilled about seeing this scenario play out negatively in entertainment.) Occasional attempts were made in the twentieth century, with Hitchcock exploring it in his silent film The Lodger (1927), and Polanski depicting the paranoia and identity crisis of a man renting an apartment in Paris in The Tenant (1976). It wasn’t until the 1990s when thrillers began looking at the genuinely unsettling notion of living with a stranger, in Pacific Heights (1990) and notably Single White Female (1992) which depicted the perils of a woman’s new lodger becoming obsessively fixated on her. Danny Boyle brought this into the world of British film with Shallow Grave, his first collaboration with screenwriter John Hodge in 1994, and whilst it often plays out like a typical film noir, the film possesses a quintessentially British feel in its inherent cynicism. The difference between Shallow Grave and Single White Female is that whilst we’re intended to root for the victimised Bridget Fonda in the latter in a “good vs evil” battle, Boyle’s film is much more ambiguous with its villains — nobody comes across well here, all of them are corrupted and greed-oriented. It was also the most commercially successful British film of 1995.


Boyle makes no bones about how terrible Shallow Grave’s housemates are, or how straightforward it is to detect a political subtext. “It’s really about British society at the time,” he said at the time. “It’s not a directly political film, yet it’s deeply embedded in post-Thatcherite decay in Britain. Greed, aggrandisement, pleasure, selfishness, individualism. And nothing is worth worshipping other than money.”


It’s no secret that the characters embody these personality traits starkly — they are as ‘shallow’ as the title’s double meaning suggests. Faced with the concept of earning a quick undeserved buck, they waste no time abandoning any morals they might have, resorting to disposing of the body in the grisliest way possible, happily proceeding to bury it in the woods, cutting off Hugo’s hands and feet and smashing his teeth to prevent identification, with only the meeker David being the one to experience a modicum of guilt over this. For a 1994 audience having just experienced fifteen years of a government encouraging self-made enterprise and success and trumpeting the phrase “There’s no such thing as society,” it’s easy to see this as a parable for the perils of revering money above all else. The protagonists of Shallow Grave hold respectable careers – a doctor, an accountant and a journalist — and are clearly smart, but in a world where even the smartest don’t earn enough to avoid cohabiting, it’s clear that something has gone badly wrong, indicative of a very broken system. That the lingering prospect of the pursuit of money can be such a corruptive force is an eternally disturbing premise.


Ultimately, Boyle and Hodge don’t reward this moral turpitude and the characters meet their comeuppance in the film’s final act, but those themes of selfishness and the breakdown of social trust are commendably highlighted. The portrayal of young professionals driven to extreme actions by greed resonates with the economic and social climate of the early 1990s, characterised by materialism and individualism. Much of the film’s horror comes from the idea of living with strangers who purport to be friends but evidently don’t care at all for each other. In today’s UK, where flat sharing in cities remains the norm for many well into their 30s and 40s, this remains a particularly horrifying notion – that the strangers you can wind up cohabiting with after a SpareRoom search wouldn’t pause to get one over on you if it meant increasing their income. To a 2024 audience continually forced into this bizarre arrangement, that’s the scariest concept of all.