Peter Cushing’s secret shame is a more interesting film than most people might expect.
Corruption is the oddest entry in Peter Cushing’s filmography – a movie so relentlessly sordid that even the notoriously uncritical actor and ‘gentleman of horror’ expressed his disdain for it. It’s the closest he came to making the sort of modernist, misanthropic, brutal horror that made up much of the British genre from the late Sixties to the late Seventies – films made by Michael Armstrong, Peter Walker, Norman Warren and others. A million miles away from Hammer, which at this stage was at its most staid, this 1968 movie remains a grim and nasty affair even now. This is especially true in the ‘international’ version that was unseen for years until it turned up as an option of the blu-ray releases (note: if you ever have the choice between the UK cut and an ‘international’ cut of anything, always go for the international version).
Corruption is a decidedly British take on the sort of story behind Eyes Without a Face and The Awful Dr Orloff. Cushing is the brilliant surgeon Sir John Warren, who is involved with younger woman Lynn (Sue Lloyd), a model and party girl. Persuaded by her to attend the sort of swinging bash that only ever existed in the minds of middle-aged filmmakers, he finds himself decidedly out of place – as out of place, in fact, as Cushing himself in this story. Sidelined by Lynn and trendy photographer Mike (Anthony Booth), he’s forced to make small talk with spaced-out hippy chick Vanessa Howard (no great ordeal, you might think…) before getting into a scuffle with Mike, who is trying to get Lynn to disrobe for an impromptu photo session. A light is knocked over and lands on her face, causing a massive, ugly scar – not the sort of thing that generally helps a fashion model’s career.
A combination of guilt and romantic obsession sees Warren use an experimental technique to restore Lynn’s beauty – something involving the pituitary gland that he removes from the corpse of a woman in the hospital he works in. This proves successful – but only temporarily. He realises he needs to extract the gland from a living woman (or at least, a fresher corpse) and this realisation sends the couple into a downward spiral of murder and madness.
This first manifests itself in the one scene that is entirely different in the two cuts. In the English edition, Warren visits a prostitute and kills her in a rather restrained scene. In the ‘international’ version, it’s very different. If you’ve ever wanted to see Peter Cushing wrestling with a topless woman before brutally slicing her up (even having an entirely unnecessary boob grope in the process), then this will be the film for you. Even by modern standards, this is an extraordinarily savage scene, the intensity increased by fish-eye lens shots of a demented Cushing, hair all over the place and showing the sort of distress and determination to get this over and done with that you suspect wasn’t entirely acting.
Soon, Warren realises that the results of his experimental surgery will never be permanent, and attempts to call a halt to the killings, but an increasingly unstable Lynn forces him to go on. As the pair hide out in a seaside cottage, Warren is forced to kill Valerie Van Ost in a train carriage, a scene slightly less exploitative but no less savage than the last killing, and take her severed head off home to be ready for the next operation. Also lined up for killing is beach bum Terry (Wendy Varnals), who the pair trick into staying with them. But here, Corruption takes a curious left turn. Terry turns out to be part of a gang of thugs who are planning to rob the cottage, and when the gang break in and terrorise Warren and Lynn, the tables are suddenly turned – the monsters are suddenly the victims. The desperate Lynn tries to convince gang leader Georgie to force Warren to operate on her in exchange for money, but the home invaders soon discover that they might have bitten off more than they can chew (severed heads in the fridge will do that), leading to a rather frantic showdown…
Directed with relentless efficiency by Robert Hartford-Davis – an efficiently workmanlike director who would later make the equally downbeat and grim The Fiend – Corruption is one of the unsung greats of British horror, appearing as it did right at the start of a shift in gears away from the gothic and into more contemporary, mean-spirited and graphic movies. The screenplay, by exploitation veterans Donald and Derek Ford (who would make everything from gothic horror to hardcore porn – sometimes at the same time – in their careers) is a masterclass in efficiency – the story trundles along so quickly, you have little time to question how ludicrous it might be, and the shift in gears with the introduction of the gang – a decidedly modern threat (just dig their Carnaby Street fashions!) against Cushing’s almost traditional mad doctor – is inspired. The Fords screenplay, thoroughly annotated, is now available for everyone to enjoy here – and those of you fascinated with the details of film production can also enjoy a seventeen-page shot list here.
The performances are mostly impressive, too. Cushing certainly throws himself into the role, showing a physicality and crazed style that is rare. As both a figure of fear and pity, he’s great, bringing the role more dignity than it might deserve. He might be essentially miscast – you feel that this might have been written with a younger man in mind – but he gives it his all. His possible distaste for what he has to do in the film probably helps with his tortured, conflicted performance too! Sue Lloyd is also excellent as she slips slowly into madness as her need to hold on to her beauty pushes her over the edge. There’s a good supporting cast playing mostly unpleasant characters too, and only Noel Trevarthen and Kate O’Mara seem unnecessary – not so much because of their acting, but because as the film’s token ‘good guys’ (Warren’s colleague and Lynn’s sister), they have very little to do.
Corruption‘s reputation has never been great. Most critics – the sort who still found Hammer films to be a bit unsavoury in 1968 – tended to follow Cushing’s lead in considering the film to be nothing more than exploitative, unpleasant trash. They are, of course, woefully wrong in their assessment. In recent years, the film has thankfully found a bigger following than ever thanks to a splendidly lurid blu-ray release from Grindhouse in the US and a predictably thorough revival by Indicator in the UK. The tie-in novel has yet to be republished, sadly.
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