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Retro Review: THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER (1973)

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THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER 
aka BEHIND THE SHUTTERS
(Spain - 1973; US release 1975)

Directed by J.A. Bardem. Written by Santiago Moncada. Cast: Jean Seberg, Marisol, Barry Stokes, Perla Cristal, Rudy Gaebel, Gerard Tichy, Alicia Altabella, Vidal Molina, Maria Bardem, Juan Bardem, Miguel Bardem, Gustavo Re. (R, 113 mins)

A Holy Grail of sorts for Eurocult aficionados, the 1973 Spanish thriller THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER has long been a staple of the bootleg circuit in editions that have been cropped and chopped and, at best, semi-watchable. Vinegar Syndrome has just released a fully-restored, uncut version on Blu-ray, in its original 2.35:1 widescreen (because physical media is dead), and in an era where obscurities tend to be revered and hailed as lost classics simply because they've been virtually impossible to see for so long, this is an insidious and quietly unsettling little gem that's been waiting patiently to be rediscovered and is thus far the top Blu-ray resurrection of 2019. What makes its chilling effectiveness all the more surprising is that director Juan Antonio Bardem (Javier's uncle) was a filmmaker known more for exploring social and political concerns in Spanish neo-realist works like 1955's DEATH OF A CYCLIST and 1956's MAIN STREET, films that earned him a spot on the shit list of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. An avowed communist whose early films offered blistering critiques of Spain's politics and bourgeois hypocrisy, Bardem had no ties to or demonstrable affinity for the horror genre aside from stepping in to complete the final shots and post-production of 1973's A BELL FROM HELL when the director, his friend Claudio Guerin, died tragically in an on-set accident when he fell from the film's bell tower on the last day of shooting. But make no mistake, Bardem has a horror master's touch with THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER, showing off an palpable verve and panache with at least two terrifying and unforgettable sequences that are so audaciously well-crafted that it's a regretful missed opportunity that he never hopped on the '70s giallo bandwagon or teamed with someone like Paul Naschy, the face of Spanish horror during that period.







In a rural Spanish town, an actress named Perla (Perla Cristal) wakes up in the morning and is brutally stabbed to death by a one-night stand who emerges from the bathroom dressed in Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp costume. The killer raids her belongings for whatever cash he can find, leaves the Chaplin mask and wardrobe behind, and disappears down a lonely country road. Cut to an isolated house in the vicinity, where things are tense between Ruth Miller (Jean Seberg) and her stepdaughter Chris (25-year-old Marisol, whose career began as a popular Spanish child star and then a singer in her teen years) after they were abandoned by Chris' father a year earlier. While Ruth hides mail and rants that "Men don't love...they possess, they injure, they invade," Chris is bitter and resentful and blames Ruth for driving her father away. The increasingly fragile, unstable Chris also has a paralyzing fear of rain and running water after being raped in a locker room shower shortly after her father left. Ruth's comforting of Chris involves leering looks and lingering kisses that aren't in any way maternal, and that's only the beginning of the perverse dysfunction that's going on. Following a violent storm, Ruth finds drifter Barney Webster (British actor Barry Stokes, later to play a similar role but as a disguised alien in Norman J. Warren's PREY), with only a backpack and a guitar, sleeping nude in the barn. While Chris is out horseback-riding with local trainer Lewis (Rudy Gaebel), sex-starved Ruth makes breakfast for Barney and the pair end up in bed under the stipulation that he leaves before Chris returns home. That only encourages Barney to stick around (Ruth: "You've had your breakfast, now get out!" Barney: "How could I leave after something as tasty as that?"), and before long, he's a guest in the house and in Ruth's bed, much to Chris' disgust. That is, until Barney makes a play for her as well, which turns an already precarious situation into a powderkeg of jealousy and sexual intrigue, with Chris sneering "He's never been in my room...yet."





Bardem and screenwriter Santiago Moncada (HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON) engage in some clever misdirection by letting this slow-burn situation reach a boil for over an hour, with little mention of the opening murder until an enraged Ruth kicks Barney out in the middle of the night during a torrential downpour. Shortly after, an entire family is murdered in their farmhouse by a sickle-wielding killer in a hooded black raincoat. This brings in a detective (Gerard Tichy) on the trail of a serial killer who's murdered seven people in the region over the last two years, with one witness describing a young man with a backpack and a guitar. And with that, the film just floors it, turning into a relentless, terrifying nail-biter when Ruth and Chris, convinced they would've been the killer's next victims, are stirred awake in the middle of the night after Barney breaks into the house, seemingly to take care of some unfinished business.





THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER was a moderate success with Spanish moviegoers, but Spanish critics beholden to important films like DEATH OF A CYCLIST generally dismissed it with the consensus being that Bardem was slumming with a paycheck genre gig that was beneath him. But viewed today, from its jawdropping prologue to its hypnotic, stylish finale, it stands with the top Italian gialli of the time, with the jarring suddenness and sheer ferocity of the farmhouse massacre rivaling anything in the unforgettable, stomach-knotting last half hour of Sergio Martino's 1974 classic TORSO and standing up to any jump-from-your-seat kill in the '80s slasher pantheon (even Waldo de los Rios' score seems to prefigure FRIDAY THE 13TH's Harry Manfredini at times). The killer decked out in a long, hooded black raincoat and wiping out the family with a sickle should've been an iconic horror image long before I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER co-opted it for the post-SCREAM craze over two decades later. THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER was relegated to US drive-ins and grindhouses by the one-and-done "Chris Releasing" (likely a dubious tax scam) in 1975, and they tried launching it again a year later with the more lurid title BEHIND THE SHUTTERS. The SHUTTERS title was used again when the short-lived Analysis re-released it in November 1979 to capitalize on the death of star Seberg, the Iowa-born Otto Preminger ingenue who starred in 1957's SAINT JOAN before heading to Europe, where she became an iconic figure in the French New Wave with Jean-Luc Godard's BREATHLESS (1960).





Jean Seberg (1938-1979)
Seberg divided her time between America and Europe throughout the 1960s until her left-wing political activism and support of the Black Panthers essentially got her blackballed from Hollywood after a pair of major 1970 releases (AIRPORT and MACHO CALLAHAN), and made her a target of J. Edgar Hoover, who regularly briefed President Richard Nixon and/or White House counsel John Ehrlichman on his findings. Through the bureau's infamous COINTELPRO program, Seberg was the subject of round-the-clock government surveillance, her home was bugged, her phones tapped, and she was the victim of a ruthless Hoover-orchestrated smear campaign in the media that didn't stop when she left America for good following the premature birth of her daughter, who died at just two days old on August 25, 1970 (at the behest of Hoover, FBI agents planted a story with a Los Angeles Times gossip columnist that was picked up by Newsweek, alleging that the baby's father was prominent Black Panther Raymond Hewitt). She lived and worked exclusively in Europe for the rest of her career, and was still under surveillance and wiretapping through the FBI working in conjunction with the CIA and the US military as late as 1972, the year of Hoover's death. Professionally, Seberg wasn't happy about starring in movies like THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER, but you wouldn't know it by watching her performance (perhaps in their mutual outspoken political activism, she saw in Bardem a kindred spirit who also had bills to pay). Haunted by the death of her infant daughter (and according to her second husband Romain Gary, attempting suicide on more than one occasion in the ensuing years around the August 25 anniversary of her passing), Seberg's psychological state continued to deteriorate and she disappeared on August 30, 1979. Her body was found eight days later, wrapped in a blanket in the backseat of her car, with a bottle of sleeping pills and a note addressed to her 17-year-old son. Paris police ruled it a "probable suicide," but there was enough alcohol in her system to lead investigators to believe that someone had to be with her when she died for the body to be blanketed the way it was, though who that is remains a mystery to this day. Seberg was 40 years old. Following her death, Time ran an extensive piece titled "The FBI vs. Jean Seberg," where top-ranking FBI officials attempted to distance themselves from the actions of J. Edgar Hoover, admitting that there was a coordinated defamation of the actress, which is the subject of the film AGAINST ALL ENEMIES, due out later this year and starring Kristen Stewart as Seberg.



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