CORRUPTION - SLEAZE OR QUALITY? Clichéd, sensational, and drab-looking. It’s hard to deny this 1967 Peter Cushing vehicle directed by exploitation expert Robert Hartford-Davis deserves such adjectives. It’s equally hard to deny it’s a unique and forceful experience, even for those who hate its power. Why?
Here’s the plot – Sir John Rowan (Cushing), a brilliant surgeon, has to recurrently kill people in order to make a serum to restore his beautiful fiancée’s scarred face – a stock subject matter for a horror film ( “The Corpse Vanishes”, a 1942 Monogram programmer for Bela Lugosi comes to mind ) executed with the same graphic surgical emphasis shortly before seen in George Franju’s respected “The Eyes without a Face” (1959) and Jesus Franco’s not-so-respected rip-off, “The Awful Dr. Orloff” (1962). Sir John then goes about carrying a Jack-the-Ripper-type case of medical tools and murdering women. After an explosive ending, the movie, apparently for want of somewhere else to go, tacks on an epilog borrowed from another classic, Ealing Studio’s “Dead of Night” (1945). From this derivative platform, the script by Donald and Derek Ford (who had previously used the Jack the Ripper motif in the fine “A Study in Terror” where the infamous Victorian killer meets Sherlock Holmes) departs to focus on its own interests. First, characterisation and psychological nuance. Sir John is a case study in the pathology of perfeccionism.
Before the opening credits are over we see him working tirelessly on the operating table, commenting that “the more successes, the more one fears failure”, and napping in a dimly lit, crammed library dominated by a dignified bust – of himself? – with a book still open on his lap. Many have said it’s uncongruous for him to be infatuated with vain, unpleasant Lynn Nolan (Sue Lloyd from “The Baron” teleseries ...). Well, assuming this uptight, middle-aged bachelor hasn’t got where he is without a fair amount of renounce the love of a beautiful model much younger than himself would be enough to make him infatuated – “obsessed”, as his colleague Dr. Harris (Noel Trevarthen) rightly points out – with her. Not only is he making up for the lost years, she is also another trophy, another “success” in his career. When he finds himself guilty of the accident that horribly burns her face, there are literally no lengths he wouldn’t go to to rescue her. He doesn’t need to kill desirable girls. He chooses them. One could argue they’re easier to handle than a strong male target. But when the prospective victim is a younger girl whose life isn’t “lost”, he resists. “I have sworn to preserve life, not to take it”, he says, his face lit up by a table lamp. The assumption is that a life of contention has groomed aggressivity toward sexually arousing women.
The movie isn’t mysoginistic, the protagonist is. As for Lynn, neither the script nor the actress overplays her femme fatale function as with, say, Hazel Court in the Roger Corman Poe adaptations. We believe in her physical and emotional pain (“People turning away as they see me!...” She’s a model! The dialogue has the intelligence of using the characters’ biographic and professional backgrounds to tighten the screw) and she sounds truthful when she says she’s chosen Sir John for “the man” rather than the money or title. And Steve Harris is a find. As the nominal hero, he’s clever enough to figure John’s actions and motives, but his Jiminy Cricket interventions are tiring and ineffectual, and when he finally acts in the climax, he does so in such a misjudged and clumsy way he just precipitates disaster. In one blow the filmmakers make up a credible character, subvert a pivotal cliché, and slap censorship and moralism in the face.
The film also sheds a new light on the old hat story by firmly setting it in the kitchen sink places and realities of swinging London, with the main result of providing a contrast between the old world represented by Sir John and the emerging landscape of the 60’s. The final act when the house is invaded by beatniks (a less conspicuous borrowing, this from John Huston’s “Treasure of Sierra Madre”, but totally filtered and legitimated) is remarkable in that each party is freaked by the other. The demented Groper (David Lodge of “Carry On” fame), wearing a black Sgt Pepper uniform is a sturdier, diabolical mirror image for John Lennon, pointing out the destructive side of on the road lifestyle. The film preceded the Mansion murders by a year. Interestingly, Corman’s “A Bucket of Blood” had also anticipated the phenomenon in a different way. A film so concerned with the eruption of beastly instincts in diverse contexts couldn’t have been softly staged. Its aggressive style is an asset, as are the seedy and commonplace settings.
Hartford-Davis gets as close as possible to Expressionistic principles within these limits in the grotesque wide-angle shots distorting the countenance and the surroundings of the protagonist; the opening credits with masked doctors and equipment blended into a single mechanism; or the last – and lasting – close-up of Cushing’s stern eyes accompanied by the soundtrack of women’s screams. This final sequence serves more to reiterate Sir John’s potential instability than to surprise us with some unexpected plot point. Equal care has been taken in considering the symbolic connotations of places and objects – the laser, the seaside, the noisy flying gulls, and so on. Last but not least – “Corruption” is very entertaining – its intellectual ventures remain almost always in the subtext and never interfere with its effectiveness as a genre piece – and VERY professional. Its deliberate drabness should never be confused with amateurism. It is purposefully achieved through the efforts of an excellent crew including cinematographer Peter Newbrook (later to photograph “The Asphyx”, 1970), composer Bill McGuffie (his jazzy score, ranging from soothing to frenzied, is the film’s voice, no less), and practically the whole cast. Peter at his creepiest, Lloyd, Lodge, the iconic and beautiful Kate O’Mara as the heroine, and perhaps especially worthy of mention , because never acknowledged, Valerie Van Ost as the victim on the train. The lady would make an even more notable appearance in another Cushing film - “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” (1973) – where she displayed enormous versatily and ease as the squeamish secretary turned wickedly anticipating victim and savagely sensuous vampiress.