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Shock, M, 107 Mins
One of the mightiest of all original cult/midnight movies, this stark, semi-factual B+W drama from 1969 was directed for a short while by a young Martin Scorsese (who was fired for being too slow), handled for a bit thereafter by industrial filmmaker Donald Volkman (also quickly fired) and finally (and mostly) put together by screenwriter Leonard Kastle in his only directing credit.
Drawn from the story of the ‘lonely hearts killers’ from the 1940s, it hinges upon a pair of brilliantly sustained performances: the ‘obese’ Shirley Stoler as Martha Beck, who talks like cult star Divine, isn’t afraid to look menacing and convinces simply as she’s so unpleasantly human, and Tony Lo Bianco as Ray Fernandez, the irresistibly oily and cheesy gigolo she falls for, and with (and for) whom she’s driven to commit murder.
Stoler’s Martha is a sulky nurse in Mobile, Alabama, who’s horrible to everyone including her poor old Mum (Dortha Duckworth), and when her friend Bunny (Doris Roberts, who later played the Mum in TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond!) signs her up to a ‘lonely hearts’ club, Martha is furious. However, when she meets Ray and he puts the moves on her, she goes for him in a big way, and soon she’s loaning him money without realising he’s a con man (although we know it from the get-go).
When he’s shamed into admitting his scam to Martha, the pair decides to work together and, after placing Martha’s Mum in a nursing home, they set off on a series of elaborate cons where Ray marries a lonely spinster, he insists that they live with his ‘sister’ (ie. the jealous Martha), and murder soon follows. And the combination of sex (subtle), nudity (Ray only), violence (ugly, nasty and despairing) and general amorality (our heroes are killers???) upset many critics and censors around the world, meaning that this was banned in Australia for years.
One of those low-budget efforts where the harsh look and grungy production values only make it more powerful and grimly realistic, Kastle’s pic has stood the test of time and could still shock, although it also proves awfully funny as a blacker-than-black comedy, especially as Stoler’s Martha is painted as such a monster and she obliges by stomping around like a pouting dinosaur.