Dir. Roberto Faenza
Written by Ennio De Concini, Roberto Faenza, Hugh Fleetwood (also novel)
Starring Harvey Keitel, Johnny Lydon, Leonard Mann, Sylvia Sydney
|As near as I can tell, there never was a theatrical poster for this one, but this image off an early 1980's VHS release is far and away the only one that looks like it was done by a professional and I kind of like it.|
Before I go any further, I want to take a second to express my pride/shame at the fact that this represents my 100th movie review! Yes, a minimum of 200 hours of my life over the last two years has been devoted to watching and writing about movies, and mostly movies of little note that no one cared about at the time and certainly don’t care about years later. Why I have undertaken this quest, I can’t exactly say. It doesn’t necessarily provide me with any practical benefits, I know almost no one on Earth knows that I do it, and it takes my time away from doing other things in my life that I ought to be keeping up with. Yet somehow, for some reason, I’m compelled to keep doing it.
I’ve learned enough from doing these essays to know a good segue when I see one, and so I’ll point out that my odd compulsion to review obscure shitty horror movies is reflected in the plot of this one, a truly strange mix of dirty cop film, weird sexual tension, and psychological horror. It’s very much a film about compulsion, and the things people are driven to do even though it may seem hypocritical, self-destructive, even suicidal. I’m not sure it’s necessarily a film about why people feel these compulsion so much as it’s about the way that their compulsions can slowly but surely push them into weird, disturbing extremes, which is where the horror comes in.
It doesn’t start that way, though. It starts like a normal police thriller, with Harvey Keitel playing an early version of the bad-lieutenant type character he would play in Abel Ferrara’s 1992 anti-entertainment classic BAD LIEUTENANT (that juggernaut franchise which inevitably spun off a Werner Herzog sequel and a ripoff retitle to this one because lets face it, what fresh-faced young man or woman in that lucrative 18-39 demographic doesn’t know and love that film, watch it a couple times a year, buy the ancillary products and perhaps participate in ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW type festival reenactments). CORRUPT’s Harvey is a little less outrageously, egregiously corrupt, though, or at least he seems to be at first. He’s on the take, and he appears to spend most of his time hanging out in his gigantic NYC apartment (bought with dirty money) smoking pot and listening to a weird country song called “Tchaikovsky’s Destruction” over and over. His apartment (co-owned with his also-corrupt-but-guiltier-about-it partner) is huge but completely empty, with only two armchairs and a record player anywhere in the unfurnished living room. Why bother being a CORRUPT LIEUTENANT if you’re not even going to throw up some black lights and Bob Marley posters? Harvey actually answers this question himself, when his partner ruefully poses it: "You bought it so that you'd have something to feel guilty about.”
Despite his being such a pot-smoking, evidence-tampering, on-the-take grouch, and a shitty interior decorator to boot, Harvey has some very hard-line conservative notions about the role of the law and the hallowed place of the police as a line between right and wrong. So you’d think he’d be more interested in the increasing paranoia about a mysterious serial copkiller, who we see (masked) stalking and murdering policemen at the start of the film. But instead, he’s far more concerned with an equally mysterious weirdo who’s stalking and obsessively talking to himself about him. That would be Leo Smith, (John Lydon, THE FILTH AND THE FURY) a pushy British freak who shows up at his door one evening claiming to be the copkiller. Harvey doesn’t buy that this swishy eurotrash is murdering hardened beat cops, but he’s plenty freaked out that he knows about the secret apartment (at least he doesn’t have to be embarrassed that the place is a wreck when someone shows up unexpectedly). When Leo volunteers that he’s been stalking him for quite some time, it becomes clear that something has to be done to keep the kid from talking. One thing leads to another, and before long Leo is chained up in his underwear in Harvey’s bathtub.
All this is in the first 30 minutes. What follows is a long, gradual slide from sanity as first one, then the other of them gradually seem to take control and their personalities seem to slide fluidly back and forth. There’s a lot of weird, unmistakable homoeroticism here, as Lydon minces around in Harvey’s bathrobe and eventually the two seem like a codependent married couple more than enemies. But the neatest thing is that their cinematic dynamic is a truly unusual one. Keitel is his usual bristle of intense machismo, but Lydon plays the part of the primary antagonist with almost apathetic malice. The more Harvey rages, the more inert he becomes, always beaten but never going away. You’ve seen Keitel play this role plenty of times, but always with other macho goons who try to match his violence with their own violence. Lydon is no threat to him physically, but manages to completely absorb his rage with a black hole of masochistic indifference. It’s hard to tell if Lydon is a good actor or not from this role -- it reminds me most of Bowie in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, where it doesn’t necessarily matter how well he emotes as much as the part happens to be the perfect blending between his public persona and an unreadable enigma. He barely emotes at all, but it's John Lydon, so there's just the slightest seed of unreadable malevolence in his eyes and it works out to be pretty perfect.
Lydon, of course, was the former lead singer of the Sex Pistols, so even though he’s not going to be able to match Harvey muscle for muscle he knows his way around aggression and playing an unhinged psycho. Here, he completely drops the antagonistic swagger and simply lets Keitel wear himself out trying to intimidate him -- and the results are surprising. Without an opposing force, Keitel collapses in on himself and begins to gradually come apart. It’s striking, because it seems like such a natural extension of the usual Harvey Keitel performance and yet I’ve never seen another film which allows him to carry his aggressive momentum past the intended target into the dark of his own soul in this way. It takes the expected and turns it into something disquieting. In a way, it even harkens to the similarly frightening descent into hedonistic madness of PERFORMANCE -- just as in that film, the weirdly unhinged symbol of hedonism sends our flawed but human protagonist down into a darkness he may not have been imaginative enough to realize was in him all along.
Of course, CORRUPT is nowhere near as stylish and eccentrically made as PERFORMANCE. It’s workmanlike, but aside from some good use of the minimalistic apartment set there’s probably not the same nightmarish lushness you’d really need to make a classic out of this material. Still, it’s not as bad as you might think. The transfer I got looks like complete shit (it’s out of print and I’m assuming my copy came directly from a VHS) but there are some marks of competence; while it’s not especially stylish it’s well-staged, and a few key locations are lovingly decorated and framed. In fact, director Roberto Faenza was not the z-grade giallo director I assumed he was, having gone on to a surprisingly respectable career directing classy book adaptations as recently as 2011. And I know it wasn’t exactly a coup to get Ennio Morricone to score your movie in 1983, but it adds a level of solid professionalism, even if I doubt Morricone would remember that he scored this one if you asked him today (it’s mostly respectably funky but not exactly atmosphere-appropriate keyboard bass and drum machines). Had Nicolas Roeg (who did MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and PERFORMANCE) directed this one, I think there is a good chance it could have been a legitimate oddball classic instead of just as classic oddity, but even as is, there’s plenty of strange and fascinating things going on here. I guess it never even made it to theaters at all, and only appeared sporadically on VHS in the mid-80s (it was filmed in 1981) with some of the worst graphic art I have ever seen in my life and of course that charming roulette wheel of titles. Still, CORRUPT, COPKILLER, CORRUPT LIEUTENANT, ORDER OR DEATH -- call it what you like. A Harvey Keitel-chaining-John-Lydon-naked-to-a-bathtub scene by any other name will be just as weird.
By the way, you can stream the whole thing on Dailymotion. It's public domain now in the US, so knock yourself out without feeling guilty. In the meantime, check out Dan P's alternate take in ABBOT AND COSTELLO GET CHAINED NAKED TO A BATHTUB PART 2: COLD BLOODED SHOWER.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2012 CHECKLIST!
LOVECRAFT ADAPTATION: No.
BOOBIES: Lydon spends most of his time in various states of undress, but no ladies, which is odd given that it's an Italian production from the early 80s.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: A few slashings, but nothing much.
SEQUEL: No, unless you want to count BAD LIEUTENANT
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Extremely high. Never released in theaters, now out-of-print.
MONSTERS: Only the monsters of our own greed and hubris.
SLASHERS: Yeah, the titular COPKILLER.
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: She did not, no.