Friday, October 14, 2016


Corruption (1968)
Dir. Robert Hartford-Davis
Written by Derek Ford, Donald Ford
Starring Peter Cushing, Sue Lloyd

You know that old axiom: “You can’t have a Chainsawnukah without watching at least a half-dozen Peter Cushing movies.” I can’t remember if that’s from Poor Richard’s Almanac or if it’s stuck somewhere in the back of the New Testament or what, but it’s true, you can’t. I mean, you wouldn’t want to anyway, but frankly the guy made so many fucking movies I’m just not sure it’d be possible, even if you really worked at it. And this year I found a doozy: an obscure 1968 EYES WITHOUT A FACE ripoff so notorious the blurb on the DVD cover actually sells it with the dubious come-on “a sleazy gem!” While I appreciate the opportunity to hide behind “gem,” I think we all know you had me at “sleazy.” Anyway, it always gives me a certain sadistic pleasure to watch Cushing --by all accounts perhaps the only genuinely kind, decent person to ever make a living as an actor*-- forced to perform degrading, unspeakable acts of perversion on film, so I was in. Plus I was flush with cash, having recently sold off several hundred dollars’ worth of last years’ horror DVD impulse buys, so I decided to treat myself to the fancy-pants blu-ray recently put out by Grindhouse Releasing, “a company that exceeds even the Criterion Collection in its determination to create the definitive editions of the titles it licenses.” Sure, those thieves at Criterion may have their handsomely restored print of PERSONA, but you want the definitive version of Peter Cushing maniacally sawing the head off a naked prostitute to steal her pituitary gland, Grindhouse Releasing got that sweet nectar you’re hurtin’ for, honey.

So I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly. But it definitely wasn’t this. It’s called CORRUPTION, or, sometimes, CARNAGE --and for once it’s not a movie which was re-released on video a hundred times, all with different lurid titles-- but having seen it I can assure you that neither title accurately reflects what a fucking bizarre film this is. The rare “long version” American VHS release altered the title to LASER KILLER, which is still wildly inappropriate, but at least does give the correct impression that this will be the sort of film with a killer laser in it. The laser in question is a pretty minor plot point, though. It’s sort of like Lindsay Lohan’s super-strong robot arm in I KNOW WHO KILLED ME: fairly incidental to the actual plot, but absolutely essential to understanding that this is a movie made by fucking insane people.

And indeed, CORRUPTION is a pretty nutso movie. By 1968, Cushing had already been a horror film staple for most of a decade since the release of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA in 1957 and 1958, respectively. He’d been churning out horror films at around five a year, and even taken a run as Dr. Who, before CORRUPTION came around. But he’d been making films almost uniformly set in the past, with a distinctly old-fashioned character despite the blood. Even the modern-set ISLAND OF TERROR from two years prior had a distinctly 1950’s mindset to it. But by 1968, modernity had come for him. And by “modernity,” I mean the Mods. The kids who had made FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA smash hits --mostly thanks to their at-the-time shocking use of explicit violence-- were starting to drift towards other things. The counter-culture was cresting, the “summer of love” had hit the mainstream, the Beatles had already discovered acid and released the White Album, and in England, Mod had hit hard. The kids were wearing bright mini-skirts, gobbling amphetamines like tea crackers, and dancing like complete dorks all night and into the morning to the Skatalites or The Yardbirds. Mainstream British society was, frankly, terrified, and they had yet to meet the Sex Pistols.

CORRUPTION, intentionally or not, is a by-the-minute testament to what happened when stodgy (“naffy” in the vernacular of the day) British society looked away from the road for a minute and suddenly slammed head-first into youth culture, which turned out to be out of its mind on amphetamines and frantically tried to flee the scene without exchanging information. This deep divide is embodied in the oddly ambivalent relationship between wealthy, aristocratic doctor Sir John Rowan (Cushing) and his younger, hipper wife Lynn (former model Sue Lloyd, THE IPCRESS FILE, REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER), who seem relatively happy moving in their own separate spheres until one night Lynn browbeats John into attending a swinging’ Mod party. With drugs. And women with flowers painted on their faces. And the hip music of today. John could not be more out of place here even if Cushing didn’t already resemble a half-complete early hominid skeleton stingily dipped in white lacquer.

Though John is an arrogant, vaguely amoral scientist in the same vein as many of Cushing’s characters up to that point (Baron Frankenstein, Dr. Robert Knox in THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS), it’s worth noting that he really seems to be trying to make the most of this obviously unworkable situation for his wife’s sake. But when a sleazy photographer (Anthony Booth, THE L-SHAPED ROOM, THE CONTENDER) tries to coax Lynn into getting a little too lewd for the camera (much to her obvious pleasure, I might add) John snaps and straight up starts a fight with the guy, in the process knocking a hot lamp into Lynn’s face and badly burning her. Well, that’s the kind of thing which can make a fella feel real guilty, and John vows to stop at nothing --nothing, do you hear me? NOTHING!-- to restore her former beauty, which includes reckless science involving the wholesale transplantation of a donor’s pituitary gland into his wife’s brain. When donors prove inexplicably scarce, well, that’s where the “stop at nothing” philosophy really comes into play, and it turns out “nothing” includes but is not limited to hacking the heads off topless prostitutes in their creepy doll-covered apartments.

Ah, that got your attention, didn’t it? The real showpiece of the film is John’s first kill, in which a panicked, frenzied Cushing arrives at a topless hooker’s apartment and proceeds to have a knock-down-drag-out fight with her that ends with an absolutely brutal decapitation move which must have been so wildly out of line for fucking 1968 that you can hardly believe it’s real. I mean, this would be an outrageously over-the-top scene in a Rob Zombie movie, and this was two years even before BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE would make this kind of explicit gore and misogyny a horror staple. I’ve seen hundreds of giallos which can't offer anything remotely close to this shocking, and this was years before anyone knew what a giallo was. What poor Cushing was thinking while filming this sequence I cannot imagine, except that you can always expect him to give 100% to every role. He does that here, sweating and shaking and rocking back and forth with a wild, feverish gleam in his eye, going completely unhinged in a way I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever seen from him. Meanwhile, the camerawork turns nigh-on hallucinatory, with a fisheye lens and hand-held camera hovering inches from Cushing’s wild, demented eyes. Even all these years later, it’s an intense, shocking sequence.

There’s nothing else quite that crazy in the rest of the film, but it’s so completely out of line with the movie’s usual campy daffiness that it hangs over the rest of the film and keeps you from getting too comfortable. And that’s good, because the film is not remotely done with its surprises yet. Obviously, on the surface the film is a pretty straightforward ripoff of EYES WITHOUT A FACE (which had already been pretty thoroughly mined by Jesus Franco’s THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF and THE ATOM-AGE VAMPIRE and would soon be beaten to death even further in THE HORRIBLE DR. PHIBES, FACELESS, and even THE SKIN I LIVE IN), but this time there’s a subtle but interesting twist. The usual formula of a guilt-ridden doctor killing people to restore a young woman’s beauty remains, but this time, Lynn isn’t some naive young innocent who doesn’t really know what’s being done in her name. She’s an active participant -- her ambition and her vanity are at stake, and she’s more than happy for John to murder as many people as necessary for her to remain beautiful. In fact, it’s John who is increasingly reluctant to continue, but she cajoles, guilts, blackmails, and finally commands him to keep going. It’s a very Lady MacBeth role, and Lloyd actually kinda nails it, coming off appropriately steely and egomaniacal behind her pretty, vacant exterior. You could argue this makes the whole thing even more misogynistic (blaming the woman instead of the man) but it also makes her a much more compelling character and gives the whole enterprise a more complex and interesting moral landscape. Cushing is great during the (relatively few) murder scenes, but with Lloyd pushing him harder and harder he’s also pretty great during the downtime, as a guy really pushed to the limit of his sanity and beyond, who is maybe learning some things about his wife and himself that he wished he didn’t know and can’t quite bring himself to acknowledge.

That all makes it sound very weighty and thoughtful, but again, killer laser. We’re getting to that. Because amid the oscillating poles of silly late-60’s camp trapping and the frenzied, sadistic murders, the movie takes another unexpected left turn (in fact, a LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT turn specifically) when Lynn picks up a young hitchhiker (Wendy Varnals, in apparently the last performance of her short career) with the intention of luring her to their home and snatching her pituitary gland. But it turns out the young lady is not what she seems any more than the murderous couple is; she’s the point man for a band of sadistic Clockwork Orange punks (Billy Murray, STRIPPERS VS WEREWOLVES, British TV, David Lodge, A SHOT IN THE DARK) who turn up to inexplicably transform the finale into a FUNNY GAMES home invasion thriller. And that’s when the killer laser enters the picture for a truly bizarre bloodbath.

So yeah, this is a weird movie. The film’s initial posters threatened “CORRUPTION IS NOT A WOMAN’S PICTURE! Therefore no women will be admitted alone to see this super-shock film!!” Setting aside the wisdom of immediately discounting half the population from paying for your product, I think that come-on probably says it all about the film’s historical context; it was about the last time you could possibly put something like that on your poster and people would accept it as a normal if somewhat sleazy sales pitch (remember, “Hysteria” was still a diagnosable condition for women; it would not be officially abolished until fucking 1980). It has one foot solidly in old-fashioned classic horror cinema (there’s nothing more old-fashioned than ripping off EYES WITHOUT A FACE, and throwing Peter Cushing in there seals the deal) but is obsessed by its dawning awareness of the very strange new world which had broken out without anyone quite realizing what had happened. Like a lot of the American youth-gone-wild pictures of the time (LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG, I DRINK YOUR BLOOD etc) it’s absolutely fixated on the more lurid trapping of the burgeoning counterculture, but also completely terrified by them. In fact, I think it worth noting that while Cushing spends the movie lopping the heads off innocent women, the last act posits both him and his wife as victims of a brutal youth gang. Even being a serial killer to procure body parts for a medically unnecessary vanity procedure isn’t as bad, in the eyes of CORRUPTION, as being a young punk who’s up to no good. Only the dispassionate gaze of a wild killer death ray can judge everyone, young and old, to be equally guilty.

Real classy, guys.

This is not the kind of movie you could really recommend to anyone, obviously. But its nightmarish mix of strange and jarring tonal changes, kitsch 60’s trappings, and intensely brutal violence does have a kind of toxic subliminal potency. While it’s not a film which I believe to have any intentional subtext, it’s certainly a film which seems to directly channel the unease of its time, pushing both the brittle class-based establishment and the wild youth to the breaking point and finding both to be despicable and malevolent at heart. Indeed, the movie itself is ultimately framed as a nightmare -- in the disappointing copout ending, it turns out this was all just a, I dunno, fantasy (?) Cushing has at the opening party. It’s a dumb and lame way to end the movie, but on a thematic level it actually makes sense: this is a nightmare. After all, the Mods ended up just being a bunch of morons who looked like total nincompoops in a few years, and the upper class never quite got around to harvesting undesirables for their organs, though by the 80’s they would come pretty close. None of this ever happened, but in the fraught throes of 1968, tensions were high enough that maybe it seemed just possible that society actually was going to come apart, that these mini-skirts and Beatle boots were a thin veneer for a apocalyptic anarchy which was bubbling up to rip apart the cover of decency which held society together.

That didn’t happen, but frankly some of this fashion in here makes you kinda wish it did. Check out even conservative Sir John’s fashion-forward getup here and try and tell me you don’t think out-of-control lasers will and should eventually end all life on Earth:

Anyway, CORRUPTION is one of a kind, thank God. England would leave this sort of thing to the Italians for the next decade or so, sparing us the weird cognitive dissonance of this sort of late-60’s stilted goofiness with some brutal over-the-top sadism sprinkled in from time to time. The DVD is labeled “Peter Cushing’s 100th Birthday Special Edition!” which is surely the way he’d love to be memorialized, so, happy birthday, Peter! Hope he enjoyed the NSFW alternate poster art of him straddling a topless woman and slicing her throat open with an orgasmic expression on his skeletal face. Maybe they sent him a copy.

*Well, until Pauly Shore came along, but does that really count as acting?

Good Kill Hunting
CORRUPTION IS NOT A WOMAN’S PICTURE! Therefore no women will be admitted alone to see this super-shock film!!
I guess technically it’s about John and Lynn getting “corrupted” but that really fails to capture the flavor here.
Well, it’s certainly a pretty clear ripoff of EYES WITHOUT A FACE.
Slasher/ Serial Killer / Mad Science
Peter Cushing
Yes, extended topless fight. What’s that you say? It kinda ruins it that an old man is attacking her with a razor blade at the time? Pleeb.   
No, although the threat thereof is certainly in the air during the climax with the youth gang.
Yes, the first hooker’s pad is covered in creepy dolls, which is disturbing enough on its own, but there’s one in particular who symbolically loses its head as a visual tribute to its owner.
None, which is too bad because had they waited just a few more years they could have made the young punks a bunch of Satanists, which would have been totally rad.
Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that John is cracking up during the course of his murders.
Yes, John and Lynn watch a young hitchhiker frolick on the beach from afar, and lust after her pituitary gland.
None of this would have happened if you could just chill out a little and let some perv at a party photograph your wife naked.

Something of a hard one to rate, since if it was any better it would obviously be a lot worse.

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