Saturday, 4 May 2013


In 1959, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face made a tremendous impact on audiences. The film offered an odd mixture of the up market and the down market, with a poetic sensibility mixed with instances of graphic gore. Indeed, the film pushed the envelope further than anything Hammer Films had done at that time, yet Franju’s credentials with the art house crowd ensured that it was taken in a more serious manner. It also set the template for a series of “surgical” horror films, many of which borrowed the basic concept of a surgeon driven to madness by love. Spanish filmmaker hit pay dirt with his own variation on the formula, The Awful Dr. Orlof (1961), establishing himself – and Swiss-American character actor Howard Vernon – as a fixture in the horror genre. The British came to the party a bit late, but when they did so, via Corruption (1967), they managed to outdo the competition in terms of sheer sleaze and gratuitous violence.

The film came at an awkward period in Peter Cushing’s career. Cushing had established himself as a household name in the UK due to top lining a number of celebrated live TV productions, and he parlayed this into big screen infamy by aligning himself with Hammer Film Productions. The double-punch of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) showed him to be an actor of tremendous versatility, equally at home in roles that were villainous and heroic, and he was soon inextricably linked with the horror genre. It was a role Cushing accepted with some reluctance, knowing full well that it would deprive him of more mainstream recognition – but it provided a steady income, and this was something that he and his beloved wife Helen were desperately in need of. Helen’s health had always been problematic, and by the time the mid-60s rolled around, her emphysema had deteriorated to a noticeable degree. Cushing was panic-stricken by the notion of possibly losing her, and the costly treatments she required insured that he was able to bank very little of the money he was making in his film work. Thus, he accepted virtually every role he could cram into his schedule – and though he took the work very seriously, he was only too aware that he was sometimes accepting projects with a less-than-distinguished pedigree. The actor had appeared in quite a few indifferent pictures through the years, but never in his career would he be faced with a project quite so sleazy and down market at Corruption.

The story deals with a distinguished surgeon, Sir John Rowan (Cushing), who succumbs to madness when he accidentally causes his lover, Lynn (Sue Lloyd), to become hideously disfigured in a freak accident. In an effort to restore her lost beauty, via a series of unsuccessful skin grafting operations, he turns to murder…

Say what you will about the film itself, it still offers one of Cushing’s most intense and deeply felt performances. The actor was deeply uncomfortable appearing in some of the scenes that were required of him, but this does not manifest itself in a negative manner on screen. True, the scene of Cushing lost amid a sea of hippies at a very 60s “flower power” party is jarring – but it is sensibly played for laughs, with Cushing conveying a sense of being a fish out of water, desperately trying to appease his younger love interest. After the accident which destroys Lynn ’s face, Cushing becomes determined to correct his inadvertent actions, and in the process he loses control and succumbs to his worst impulses. There’s a particularly strong scene wherein Rowan, trying to keep his mounting frustration and rage under control, finally snaps at his young assistant (Kate O’Mara). Cushing plays the sequence for all the punch and pathos it is worth – it doesn’t even feel so much like acting as a moment of cathartic release, as if his own personal demons and anxieties were spilling over into the character.

Cushing would later decry the film for its excesses, but he recognized that it had the germ of a worthy dramatic concept. It’s possible that he entered into the film hoping that it would explore the dynamics of the relationship between Rowan and Lyn, but any such idealism surely faded soon into the production. When the time came to film a sequence wherein Rowan murders a prostitute, it surely must have felt like a very bleak day. The scene was filmed twice, once in a more conventional manner befitting the censorship mores of the UK and the US marketplace, and then in a more risqué manner, which depicts the “gentleman of horror” forcing a topless actress (played by Marianne Morris; she is substituted by a clothed Jan Waters in the more commonly available edit of the film) to the ground, slashing her with a knife, smearing blood over her naked breasts, and then beheading her. It’s a very intense set piece, though director Robert Hartford-Davis’ concept of how to best capture the insanity of the moment was to go wild with the fish-eye lens effects. Clubfooted direction to one side, it’s Cushing who gives the scene its impact - partially because it seems so very out of character, and partially because he conveys a sense of going over the edge that is almost unique in his body of work.

Sadly, the film isn’t worthy of Cushing’s efforts. As noted above, Hartford-Davis’ direction is flat and functional at best. He would go on to direct Cushing in an even more unfortunate project - Incense for the Damned, aka Bloodsuckers (1970), an incomplete hodgepodge of vampirism and flower power mysticism that was largely filmed on location in Greece - but his most interesting and accomplished picture remains The Fiend (1971), a demented slice of religious mania featuring typically intense performances from Tony Beckley (When a Stranger Calls) and Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange). His emphasis is squarely on the sensational in this context, however, which creates a dramatic vacuum where a far greater sense of emotional investment would have been appreciated. Nowhere is this more evident than in the depiction of the character of Lynn, played by Sue Lloyd. Lloyd is a capable and photogenic actress, but her portrayal is unsympathetic - and this is very much as she appears to have been written. Lloyd doesn’t manage to invest any real pathos into the character, regardless, thus making Cushing’s obsession with her seem bizarre and misplaced. It’s truly as if the two actors were making two different films - Lloyd picking up a paycheck for playing a bitchy femme fatale, and Cushing trying to capture a far greater sense of heartfelt sorrow and heartache. The remainder of the cast is similarly uninspired, with even the normally reliable character actor David Lodge (something of an unofficial member of the Peter Sellers “rep company,” having appeared in many of the great comic’s films, including A Shot in the Dark and I’m All Right Jack) coming off quite poorly as a goon who roughs up Cushing’s character at one point; the actor was miscast and likely knew it, and he resorts to broad overacting to compensate. Add in one of the most truly horrific music scores to be found in British horror (“courtesy” of Bill McGuffie, who really oughtn’t have bothered) and the end result is as offputting as it is poorly made. 

Even so, Cushing fans are still encouraged to give it a try - the “full strength” edition isn’t so easy to find, but certainly the tamer US/UK edit is easy enough to come by. If ever there was proof of Cushing’s utter commitment and professionalism in even the most unsavory of projects, Corruption most certainly fulfills that function. 

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