To many fans of classic horror, Peter Cushing is looked at with great fondness, as if he were the kindly uncle they never had. He often played good guys and had an offscreen reputation for kindness to fans and coworkers that made him a beloved figure. That said, he was an actor’s actor and if the role required him to get down and dirty, he could do it: look at his work in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed or Twins Of Evil, for just two examples. That said, his nastiest cinematic venture has to be Corruption, a sleazy horror potboiler that has Cushing going bonkers in ways that will make his fanbase do a few double-takes.
As many critics have noted, Corruption owes a heavy debt to Eyes Without A Face (the template for plastic surgery-oriented mad doctor flicks). Cushing toplines as Sir John Rowan, a highly skilled surgeon who is dating a lovely model named Lynn (Sue Lloyd). One night he accompanies her to a party with her fashion friends and gets in a fight with her bossy, jealous photographer (Anthony Booth). Their scuffle results in a hot lamp falling on Lynn’s face. She survives but the scar ruins her beauty and pushes her to the edge of sanity.
Stricken with guilt, Rowan throws himself into the study of experimental plastic surgery. He develops a technique involving the use of the pituitary gland and risks his career by stealing one from a corpse to perform the surgery. The results are miraculous but only have temporary effect. When Lynn’s scars return, her anguish (and slipping mental health) drive Rowan to commit murder to repeat the surgery. In short order, he finds himself in a cycle of bloodshed and crime that leads him to ever more depraved extremes.
The cinematic end result assaults the senses on a few levels. For starters, Corruption is amazingly nasty for a film produced in 1967, particularly if you see the uncut version: there are severed heads, a topless prostitute who dies a bloody death and some intensely violent struggles between Cushing and his victims.
The latter part is another key part of the nastiness: Cushing is front and center during all the trashy shocks, with the moment where he kills the topless prostitute easily being the grimmest act he ever performed on camera – complete with him wiping his bloody gloves on her bare torso. Cushing fully commits to the violent scenes, thrashing around with wild eyes as his normally slick hairstyle whips into a follicular frenzy. Seeing the horror genre’s resident Kindly Uncle committing such mayhem is truly disturbing, particularly if you’re fond of his better-known work.
The final part of Corruption‘s ability to unnerve comes from its thoroughly off-kilter sense of style. Donald and Derek Ford’s script dispenses with niceties like believable character development and plausibility and replaces them with a skill for creating scenes laden with razor-edge melodrama of the campiest variety and a knack for exuberantly sleazy plotting, including a third act where things are complicated by an unexpected set of villains and a gleefully daft twist ending. The resulting story bypasses absurdity and moves into a sort of b-movie surrealism that is creepy because it cares for nothing else besides shocking the viewer in a seedy, vicious way.
The same could be said for the direction of Robert Hartford-Davis, who vacillates between a placid, T.V.-style of filmmaking for the regular dialogue scenes and feverish stylization for the killings, with a lot of outrageous handheld camera work, flash-edits and discomforting use of a fish-eye lens. The latter moments are fetishized to the point of being pop-art sadism. The aesthetic madness is completed by a wacko lounge-jazz score from Bill McGuffie. It’s frequently inappropriate to the sordid onscreen action – and all the more unnerving in effect because it is so out of place.
This whirlpool of insanity is held in place by Cushing, who is the consummate professional no matter what his screenwriters and director throw at him. His solid work gives the audience a rope to hang onto as the filmmakers drag them through their world of swinging Sadean cruelty. Props must also be given to Lloyd, who gradually ramps up the crazy factor until she reaches Whatever Happened To Baby Jane levels of wide-eyed, gibbering madness in the last few reels. Elsewhere, Anthony Booth is delightfully slimy as the photographer and Hammer regular Kate O’Mara lends solid support as Lynn’s long-suffering sister.
In summation, Corruption is a hypnotic sleaze/horror cocktail that is given an added kick by the fact that it is every bit as insane from a cinematic standpoint as its murderous protagonists. You’ve never seen Peter Cushing like this before – and that alone is enough to earn the film its place in trash-horror history.