Written by Donald Ford, Derek Ford
Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis
Starring Peter Cushing, Sue Lloyd, Noel Tevarthen, Kate O’Mara
US Release Dec. 4, 1968
Home Video Grindhouse Releasing (Blu-ray)
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
After a three-hour surgery, Dr. Steve Harris (Noel Trevarthen) tells his colleague, Sir John Rowan (Peter Cushing), that he doesn’t know how he can do it. Confident, yet humble, Rowan replies, “The more you succeed, the more you fear the failures.” This says a lot about Cushing’s character, explaining an eagerness to push the limits of his medical knowledge, then later a reluctance to continue doing so when it becomes dangerous.
Cushing was 55 years old when Corruption was made. He’s the most youthful-acting I’ve seen him during this era of his career, perhaps because for once it takes place during “modern” times. Still, I wasn’t convinced that a beautiful model half his age, Lynn Nolan (Sue Lloyd), would be romantically interested in him. The movie doesn’t indicate that he’s particularly rich, even though that seems the most logical reason she would boast, “I’m going to marry him. Marriage is forever.”
We’re told later that John was “always obsessed with Lynn,” but the movie doesn’t demonstrate this either. In fact, when the couple attends a wild club/art opening, he’s tired and wants to leave. She doesn’t want to leave, and when the photographer who made her a modeling sensation, Mike Orme (Anthony Booth), wants to take her picture, a scuffle between John and him ensues, causing a tragic accident that leaves Lynn’s lovely face burned on one side.
Lynn’s sister, Val Nolan (Kate O’Mara) arrives at the hospital and becomes a major player throughout the remainder of the movie. Now we see John’s obsession as he attempts to restore her beauty, studying books about skin grafts around the clock. When Lynn cries to Val, “I’ll never regain my looks,” Val comments to John, “You can restore her face but what about her mental state? I think she’s losing her mind.” She won’t even leave her alone with her “tablets” for fear that she’ll overdose on them.
The two sides of John are exhibited again with him shouting at Val one minute, then apologizing to her the next. “I believe there is hope… real hope.” He’s constantly in a state of internal struggle. When experiments with pituitary glands from guinea pigs and dead women yield only temporary success, he decides he must obtain them from human living tissue. Visiting a prostitute who will become his first victim, he takes his coat off, then puts it back on several times, as if he’s yet to make up his mind.
Time passes quickly in Corruption, with no transition to indicate it. One minute, John and Lynn are out the door on holiday; the next, they’re rushing back in the house 10 days early because her scars have returned. With each degradation of her face, there’s mention of the mental strain this must be causing Lynn. Whether that’s true or we’re simply learning more about her character, she isn’t very pleasant. She lies and manipulates so that John is forced to continue his experiments.
After he kills the prostitute, John reads newspaper headlines about a headless girl murder. He becomes fearful when the article states that medical experience is apparent. He and Lynn decide to get away to the cottage. When John estimates she has a week before the scars return, she insists that he kill again. “I can’t do it again,” he says, “I’m sworn to preserve life, not take it.” When he tells her he wants to marry her now, she asks why. “Guilt? Pity? I won’t be able to forget. It’s the only way it could work for us.”
About that time, Lynn happens to spy a young woman playing on the beach. “Such a shame; she appears to be all alone. Darling, why don’t you go down and talk to her?” Before you know it, Terry (Wendy Varnals) has practically moved in. Lynn pushes John to behead her. “I won’t do it,” he insists. “She’s young. She’s got her whole life ahead of her. The other was a prostitute. Her life was a mess. I could justify it.” After Lynn threatens to do it for herself, John grabs the knife.
Terry temporarily disappears, though, so John takes a train ride with a young woman in a pink dress and later exits with blood on his cuffs. He’s certain that the porter saw it and will remember him, but Lynn is single-minded, not caring about John’s possible incarceration. Meanwhile, Steve tells Val about a headless body found under the seat of a train and becomes suspicious of John. “We’ve got to get him away from her!”
With two-thirds of the movie complete, Corruption suddenly changes into a primitive version of the modern “home invasion” sub-genre movie. Terry appears suddenly, “Hi, I’m back!” But she doesn’t come alone; rather, she’s accompanied by her 1960s “beatnik” friends, who hold John and Lynn captive. From here to the end, the movie goes bonkers. There are foot chases on the beach, plastic-wrapped heads in the refrigerator, and a hulking simpleton named “Groper” (David Lodge).
It all culminates with everyone in one room and lasers shooting all over the place, igniting tiny lines of fire and cutting their bodies. The final scene could be an attempt to add some ambiguity. Without it, it’s a real downer. It may still be a downer, but when the movie basically flashes back to the party that started it all, everything that happened before could be seen as a cautionary tale, a “what if” that places John at a crossroads. How he reacts to repeated chants of, “Undress; take your dress off,” might determine his fate.
Although it’s filled with a peppy jazz score that is at its cheeriest when John is being his most deadly, Corruption is filmed less filthily than you would suppose. The exception is during the murder scenes. They’re not bloody, at least not in the regular, non-international version; however, they’re crazily-filmed with tilted camera, fishbowl lens, trombone-zooms and a manic Cushing with steel blue eyes and out of control hair as he manhandles his victims.
There’s no real suspense, either, which could be for a variety of reasons. The point of view is John’s and Lynn’s and there’s no sense that they may be caught. There’s no protagonist on the opposite side investigating the murders. More importantly, we don’t know the victims, so we’re not invested in their survival. John is so wishy-washy and Lynn is so evil that it’s hard to root for anyone. So we just watch. It’s entertaining enough, I suppose, but not for repeat viewings.