Sunday, 11 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: C is for Corruption (1968)

Peter Cushing was arguably Britain’s greatest horror star (I’d definitely argue it), but it’s unusual to see him take quite as hands-on a role as he does in Robert Hartford-Davis’s remarkably lurid Corruption. Against a garish backdrop of Swinging London and the not-quite-as-swinging Sussex coast he turns from a perfect gentleman to a serial slasher and decapitator of young women.

Corruption is a very 60s film indeed – not just in how it looks and sounds (Bill McGuffie’s jazzy score is pretty much inescapable throughout – I loved it but it might sound a bit muzaky for most people) but in its plot too. The new morality of the decade clashes with older values to disastrous effect. No prizes for guessing which of these Cushing (seen so often in 19th century get-up) represents. He plays Sir John Rowan, a distinguished surgeon and seemingly as upright a member of the Establishment as you could hope to find. The new era is most fully embodied by Mike (Tony Booth, son-in-law of Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part and father-in-law of Tony Blair in real life), the familiar 60s stereotype of the trendy photographer, calling everyone ‘baby’ and urging his models to do things like ‘freak out’ when they’re posing.

The link between these two very different characters is Lynne, played by Sue Lloyd. Sir John’s girlfriend and Mike’s model, she’s upper-crust enough to convince as the former’s girlfriend despite a major age difference – although how they got together in the first place is anyone’s guess - and coolly beautiful enough to be believable as a 60s model. The catastrophe happens at a party held by Mike - a textbook example of a 60s party scene, full of swingers shaking their thing and being terribly groovy. Needless to say, Cushing looks as out of place as a grandfather clock in a space shuttle. He’s desperately uncomfortable when a dim model played by Vanessa Howard (the Girly of Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly) starts making excruciating conversation with him (‘I don’t like Chinese food, well I don’t mind spare ribs – have you ever been to Texas?’), his politeness only just masking his bewildered contempt for her and the rest of the young people surrounding him. Mike decides to hold an impromptu photo session with Lynne – as it becomes steadily more suggestive Sir John’s anger rises to the surface and he tries to stop it, ending up in a fight with Mike which causes a lamp to come crashing down onto Lynne’s face, horribly burning it.

Understandably upset by the damage to her looks and livelihood, Lynne’s driven to the brink of suicide. Sir John’s similarly crushed and decides to use his surgical skill to restore her face. Determined to discover the lost skills of the Ancient Egyptians (who were apparently a dab hand at the odd nip and tuck) he obtains both a giant laser (controlled by a computer, which automatically makes it about as futuristic as anything could be in the 60s) and a pituitary gland from a corpse in the hospital morgue (pituitary glands have a special attraction for mad scientists in horror films of the 50s and 60s). Enlisting the help of Lynne’s loving sister Val (Kate O’Mara) he uses the laser and the gland (I’m not quite sure how it’s meant to work, despite the gruesome surgical close-ups) to bring back Lynne’s beauty. He succeeds. Hooray! The end.

Well no, not quite. The effects don’t last very long and Sir John decides the only thing to do is obtain a fresh gland from a living subject. Deciding to pick on an unwanted and degenerate member of society he visits a prostitute, but gets cold feet almost as soon as he arrives and tries to sneak out. She’ll have none of that though, and finds his knife, which she threatens him with. Oh dear. Before long she’s been stabbed to death in full view of her creepy collection of cuddly toys and broken dolls, and Sir John’s made away with her head in his medical bag. From this point on the film becomes increasingly lurid and bizarre, almost like a British version of one of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s crazed US gore films like Blood Feast or Color Me Blood Red, only not quite as gory. Sir John performs another operation, but after a brief happy period Lynne’s new face again begins to fall apart. By this stage she’s getting increasingly Lady Macbeth on us and demands more killings. Maybe a trip to their cottage at Seaford will help calm her down? No, not even her amazing visor-like sunglasses cool Lynne’s bloodlust. Spotting a lone sunbathing girl she insists they grab her gland. The increasingly helpless Sir John starts to go along with it and they invite young Terri (Wendy Varnals) apparently all alone in the world, to stay with them (she assumes, not unreasonably, that they’re just rather kinky). Sir John takes a bit of a shine to her and decides he can’t bear to cut her head off, but she’s not quite what she pretends to be… The stage is set for more grisly murders, a wonderful head in the freezer discovery moment, a pre-Manson family home invasion by a brutal gang, a disturbing cameo from comedy stalwart David Lodge as the mute, animalistic Groper and a bonkers double ending ripped off from classic Brit horror Dead of Night.

The standard of acting helps lift the film above being just another sleazy shocker. Lloyd is wonderfully effective as the cool model who transforms into a kill-crazed harpy, and Booth and O’Mara are great in their supporting roles. Noel Trevarthen as Sir John’s doctor colleague and love interest for O’Mara is a bit more stiff, and it doesn’t help that he’s given the film’s most unwieldy dialogue, including B-movie clichés like ‘But-but that’s impossible!’ Cushing is absolutely brilliant as the desperate and rather pathetic Sir John, horrified at what he’s been reduced to. It’s pretty obvious which side of the old/new divide the filmmakers sympathise with – Sir John is presented as a decent man adrift in a crazy world and led astray by a duplicitous woman: Lynne claims she wants her face restored to heal the rift between them caused by the accident but in fact just wants to resume her modelling career, which she promised she’d give up. Yes, as with the majority of exploitation films casual misogyny’s the order of the day here.

Director Hartford-Davis is a major Britsploitation figure, also responsible for schlock classics like The Yellow Teddybears, The Smashing Bird I Used to Know, Incense for the Damned and The Fiend. Corruption’s one of his most interesting films and, as it progresses, one of the most gleefully unhinged British films I’ve ever seen. And for Cushing fans it’s worth watching just to see a whole new dimension to the great man.

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