It’s the Swinging Sixties baby, and Peter Cushing is right in the thick of it! Or rather I should say he’s up to his tweed in blood and severed heads in Corruption (1968), a strange and nasty little number that proves the Baron did know how to get his hands dirty.
Released in December by Columbia Pictures, Corruption curried no favor from critics at the time, with most labeling it as silly nonsense with a poor script. But time has been kind to the film (and softened its edges), as it’s a good showcase for Cushing and a solid snapshot of London’s loosening mores. And with a tagline that screams, “CORRUPTION IS NOT A WOMAN’S PICTURE!”, how can you refuse?
Sir John Rowan (Cushing) has it all: Lynn, his beautiful model fiancée (Sue Lloyd – Eat the Rich), a thriving career as one of London’s leading plastic surgeons, and…well, those are the two baskets Sir John houses all of his eggs in. When Lynn’s face is tragically disfigured by a photographic light, John feels helpless towards his betrothed. Until that is he creates a laser devised from ancient Egyptian technology, that, when combined with a pituitary gland, will regenerate dead skin cells.
Sir John starts off with a female corpse he finds down in the mortuary, much to the chagrin of his colleague Steve (Noel Trevarthen – It!) who warns him never to do it again. (That would shorten the length of the film quite a bit, Steve.) The procedure works, but only temporarily; Sir John decides he needs to move onto fresh glands, which can mean only one thing: a trip to the local hookerporium.
When that graft wears off, Sir John kills again. And again. Soon, lady Lynn herself turns a loon’s corner in an attempt to keep her beauty, even after Sir John has vowed never to take another life. Will the madness end, or will Lynn need to seek out a different homicidal surgeon for her beauty regimen?
Corruption is the same horse with a new bridle; Eyes Without a Face (1960) immediately comes to mind, and there’s a Dr. Jekyll flavor to Cushing’s storyline. Of course, the lumbering shadow hanging over his shoulder was Baron Frankenstein, a role by that point he had assayed several times and would again. No need to worry though; there are enough differences between the characters to let Cushing stretch and shine.
Sir John is much more sympathetic than the Baron; his reasons for performing the operations are noble enough – preserve his fiancée’s beauty, and in turn make great strides in plastic surgery – it’s the methods that lack decorum. (No matter what anyone tells you, there is no box marked “noggin” on an organ donor card.) He’s never comfortable killing and he draws his line in the sand, much to the discontent of Lynn, who starts to show her desperation.
It is she who becomes the real monster of the story; yes, Sir John started the ball rolling, but Lynn is more than happy to help – anything to keep her visage in tip-top shape. Sir John becomes a monster only to beget another; it is this changing of the guard, the transference of power that the film gets its juice from; Lynn represents the youth looking to upend the quieter, more placid waters of British society. It’s there in the early party scene, where she’s comfortable amongst her hipster (and hippy) friends, whereas the older John is not; and it happens again when the duo are beset upon by a gaggle of grifters at their summer getaway. The corruption of the title not only refers to greed, envy, and vanity then but possibly in the mind of director Robert Hartford-Davis (Black Gunn) and screenwriting brothers Donald and Derek Ford (A Study in Terror, I Am a Groupie, respectively) a piss-taking of the old charge as well.
Corruption certainly upped the icky factor for Cushing, pulling him into the modern era of gore kicking and screaming. (He loved the script, wasn’t too keen on the end results.) Still, it’s pretty tame by today’s standards (or even by the provocative hucksters of that time like Herschell Gordon Lewis) – the beheadings are shown after the fact – but I suppose the tone ended up throwing him off. Not too surprising really; even with the subversive nature of his Hammer work ten years prior, he was still part of the cherished old guard.
Corruption is available on Blu-ray from Grindhouse Releasing.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: SPASMS (1983)