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Descent into the Inferno: Roger Watkins Corruption

The art of the power play and what levels one is willing to sink to sell their soul, or at the very least, their sense of moral self, is something that has plagued our species from the very beginning. It is entrenched in the darker side of the human condition, to the point of inescapability. How much is your individuality and sense of self-power truly worth? This is the core issue that businessman Williams faces and more in Roger Watkins's brilliant, visually gorgeous and wholly cryptic 1983 film, Corruption.

From the opening shot of Jamie Gillis descending out of the darkness and into a subterranean room flooded with light to the last frame reeling in like the most cynical noir, Corruption is the kind of film about human nature that only an artist like Watkins could make. Gillis plays Williams, a businessman who has made a deal with some moneyed and potentially dangerous people, headed by the quietly predatory and cocksure Franklin (Michael Gaunt). Aided by his faithful but wan looking secretary/lover, Doreen (Tiffany Clark), Williams assures the men that he believes in “business” and in “honoring his contracts.” He is all but warned that time is running out for him to turn in what is owed.

Williams sends a hired gun, Alan (George Payne) to go retrieve this mysterious object. Entering a deteriorated looking, semi-industrial building, he approaches a stylish but stern looking woman behind a large desk, reading a hardcover copy of Cosima Wagner's Diaries. (Cosima was the daughter of legendary composer Franz Liszt and went on to be the second wife to another legendary, as well as notorious composer, Richard Wagner.) Her office has the appearance of a large janitorial closet, plus all of the charm. He asks her “Where is it?” Coolly, she replies, “I warn you, it won't be easy getting it to where it belongs,” which is a statement that borders on an ancient-Greek level prophecy. He insists and she points him to a door, which reveals a primary color blue room. Swanky sax music plays as he is greeted by a comely brunette in matching lingerie. She coos at Alan, “You know what I'd like you do?” “What?” “Nothing.” The first level of denial in Alan's Dante-esque descent in the quest for Williams' object has begun.

After pleasuring herself and teasing Alan throughout, she asks him if he could rely only on himself. He kind of shrugs and says “I guess so.” Our blue lady gives a classic Watkins answer with, “Guessing so is never good enough.” She then disapprovingly points him to the next room, which is bright vermilion red with another dark haired lovely dressed in lingerie that matches her surroundings. Unlike the girl in the blue room, she physically engages with Allan, though barely feigning interest (not for his lack of trying) but stops one beat short of letting him climax. Frustrated, he is pointed to “one more door.”

In stark contrast with the vibrant technicolor thrum of the past two rooms, Alan's final destination is stark black with a gorgeous but even more detached woman dressed in, you guessed it, black lingerie. She inquires if he can renounce love. He assures that he can and is then ordered to mount her. He finally gets to finish but she barks at him not to emit inside her, granting Alan release but with no pleasure, as evidenced by his sweaty, anguished face. This is not a happy man. His descent is seemingly finished when he ends up back in the decrepit office. The woman with the Wagner book is gone but in her place is a briefcase, which feels like shades of 1955's Kiss Me Deadly. He picks it up and then quietly leaves.

Meanwhile, Williams' and Doreen come home, with the former noting the continual absence of the lattter's younger sister, Felicia (Kelly Nichols). Doreen ask him if he loves her, then questions “Why?” when he says yes. Baffled, he eventually replies that it's because she doesn't ask for too much. (Always a sterling building block for any relationship.) Despite the odd pillow talk, they make love with Doreen towards the end echoing the woman in the black room, albeit more gently, telling him to pull out before he climaxes. In a nice nod to the real world of lovemaking, Williams' asks her when she is going back on the pill. When she responds that her doctor said never, he retorts “Get another doctor.” It is rare the adult film, even from the golden age, that acknowledges the surrealism of a man pulling out for any reason other than primitive birth control.

Things are soon about to get bad to worse for Williams' as Allan has disappeared off the grid, along with the it he is needing. He ends up at one fleapit of a dive watering hole with no visible bartender and the only humans in attendance being one bored looking but tireless half naked dancer gyrating to some generic bar rock and Larry (the late, great Bobby Astyr), who is both Williams half brother and his main connection to a nebulous underworld of vice and surreal kinks. Larry will serve as a grinning, leather jacket Charon to the river Styx of rooms with peepholes where each scene is Eros and reality gone blurred and darkened.

One room reveals a dominatrix ordering around her masked slave to suck on her boots and calling him her “puppy dog,” which the man on all fours reacts all too eagerly, with the big reveal being that he is Williams himself. (A metaphor for his role in the business world? Perhaps.) The real Williams is none too happy about this scene but is encouraged to check out one last show. The final room reveals a macabre scene with the body of a white clad maiden on a funereal slab, flanked by candles, smoke and darkness. A man, shirtless with a red-smeared mouth, white face, eyeliner and black top hat, Baron Samedi style, keeps intoning “cold” and approaches the woman. He ends up violating the corpse as a tear of blood is perma-stained from her shut eye. To Williams' horror, this beautiful madman, this Pierrot-voodoo necrophile is Allan himself. No one escapes unscathed from their descent into their own inferno, which may include Williams himself in the end. The dirt and scars one can accumulate when their back is up against the wall can be unrelentling in their depths.

Corruption is a fascinatingly obtuse, but not unobtainable film full of no easy answers, a lot of intelligence and an aesthetic that is unforgettable. The combination of Watkins, who had previously proven his meddle with the underground art-rough-house horror of Last House on Dead End Street, as well as the dark as a dungeon adult film Her Name is Lisa (which featured Corruption actors Bobby Astyr, Samantha Fox and Vanessa Del Rio) along with the great cinematographer and director in his own right, Larry Revene, was golden. The two would go on to work together on Watkins' greatest film, 1987's American Babylon. (Which featured three of the best performances out of the entire decade in the form of Michael Gaunt, Tish Ambrose and Bobby Astyr. Watkins obviously knew the perfect stable of actors to keep on hand for maximum effect.) From the vivid use of reds, blues and blacks, to the absolute unforgettable image of George Payne as Allan post-descent, looking like Zal Cleminson from the Alex Harvey Band gone hoodoo, the imagery is striking without ever nearing the waters of garish or obvious.

Character wise, the fact that the closest thing this film has to a protagonist is Williams, is beyond telling. When he stoically assures his morally nebulous business associates in the beginning that “I believe without honor all business is useless,” there is this pregnant tonality where you know this is not going to end well. Idealism is a sweetness that will violently end in a room full of human sharks. (Gillis' world-weary performance is absolutely perfect and lends itself to this vibe so well.) This is a universe where absolution does not exist. Nothing can save even the best souls from their sins. Even better is the deep human flaw that runs throughout even the best character, which in Corruption's case is Williams himself. Here's a man that aimed for honor but the minute he dirtied his hands while reaching for power and what he perceived as “owed” to him, partially sealed his fate. Having others, whether it is the even more doomed Allan or the charismatically crime-minded Larry, do his dirty work for him, is what ultimately seals his fate.

Another standout here is Watkins' great and acerbic observations about the nature of adult film, especially with the aforementioned dialogue between Williams and Doreen about birth control to Larry's comment in the bar with “Isn't amazing how us guys never get tired of seeing some half wasted broad shake her ass?” This is no slap and tickle dog and pony show and bless all involved for that.

The cast is incredible, with Gillis, Astyr and Gaunt all bringing their A game, though it is Payne who nearly steals the show in a very fearless performance. The image of his made-up face bathed in green light is one of the most striking images I have seen in recent memory. Clark, Del Rio, Ambrose and especially Fox are all equally great, though none of them are given nearly enough to do. (This is doubly true of Kelly Nichols, who certainly is as talented as she is lovely, but mainly just gets to look pretty and then get sexually assaulted by a grinning Franklin.)

Corruption, like the bulk of Watkins' filmography, had been in out-of-print limbo for years. Luckily, this has recently changed. Vinegar Syndrome, working their usual film preservation magic, have released a gorgeous remaster of this bleak little gem on Blu ray and DVD. It looks outright sumptuous and does the twin hard work of Watkins and Revene absolute justice. It gives one hope that the rest of the man's work will get similar treatment as well. (It's a little known secret that they are currently working on a release of Last House on Dead End Street, of which a non-remastered print is available via a well hidden Easter Egg on the initial Blu Ray releases of Corruption.)

Roger Watkins is one of the most overlooked American indie filmmakers to have emerged out of the past forty years. With re-releases like Corruption and the upcoming Last House on Dead End Street, hopefully more of his work will get the proper release, re-evaluation and appreciation that so much of it richly deserves.

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