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Film / A Shock to the System

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A Shock to the System is a 1990 American dark comedy crime thriller film directed by Jan Egleson and starring Michael Caine, Swoosie Kurtz, and Elizabeth McGovern. It is based on the 1984 novel of the same name by British author Simon Brett.

Graham Marshall (Caine), a long-time executive in a large advertising company, is unexpectedly passed over for promotion. Angry and disappointed, Marshall unwittingly causes an accident in the subway, in which a panhandler is killed. Marshall is able to leave unobserved, which gives him the idea that murder can be a way get ahead in life, and deciding to take revenge on the people who have caused him problems in his life, Marshall starts meticulously planning their deaths.


This film features examples of:

  • Big Bad: Graham Marshall, who is a Villain Protagonist.
  • Karma Houdini: During the course of the film, Graham's Villain Protagonist pushes a hobo in front of an oncoming train, murders his wife in cold blood, seduces and drugs a co-worker to use her as an alibi, blows up his Bad Boss (and an Innocent Bystander), and has a jolly good time doing it. In the end, he seduces the same coworker again to get her to turn over the only evidence implicating him, puts her on a bus, gets promoted to vice president of his company, and, in the final scene, murders a member of the board of directors for his job (and his corner office).
    • Averted in the original novel where he gets arrested via a Thanatos Gambit by the mother of a victim, who poisons herself so that Graham will appear to have done it.
  • The Perfect Crime: Graham discovers just how easy to get away with murder, and decides to test the limits of his ingenuity and the cops' credulity.
  • Villain Protagonist: The film follows an average joe who, after accidentally killing a hobo, decides to also ingeniously murder his wife and boss, seduce his secretary, and get that job he's always wanted. And he gets away with it all, too.


Example of: