[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
The Medusa Touch has had a most curious history. Richard Burton went into it hot on the heels of Exorcist II and Equus, but it took about a year to follow them into the cinemas, opening in London in June of 1978. Despite lots of names, a big budget and good notices, it then did what every film of above-average interest is likely to do in Britain: it disappeared totally from sight. (The remarks of RTJ in MTN 60-61 suggest the film got oblivion treatment in the U.S., too.) Nearly another year went by and then, blammo!, it was all over the place. Double-billed with an even older Paul Bartel movie, it got saturation bookings all over the country, and was even advertised on TV – very rare in Britain. One hopes that all this adds up to making it a hit at last.
As the ultimate in disaster movies, and a more intelligent and intriguing variant on the subject matter of Carrie, it would seem to have a lot going for it. The telekinetic hero of The Medusa Touch has powers that Carrie White would blench at. John Morlar (Burton) has a flair for catastrophe that borders on the diabolic. The plot in fact suggests a crossing of Carrie with the 1968 George Pal-Byron Haskin movie The Power. Like the hero of that film, Morlar has Will – and how! Simply by using this ultra-developed will-power, the infant Morlar caused his nurse to suffer a fatal attack of measles (yes, measles), his nasty parents to get run over by their own car, and his school to catch fire. Growing up unloved and unloving, he takes to the law, and when an innocent client is found guilty thanks to a bigoted judge, Morlar merely fixes the old boy with a glittering-eyed stare and the judge keels over with a fatal coronary. When his wife ditches him for another man, Morlar’s will-power leads to a lethal car smash. When his neighbor’s wife makes too much noise and ruins his concentration (he’s by now become a novelist), Morlar wills her to leap (fatally) from the window. And so it goes, onward and upward, with Molar’s hatred for the world reaching such apocalyptic heights that our very planet is in danger from the “man who can create catastrophe.”
Richard Burton has a high old time as this superhuman avenger. It’s been this actor’s lot to give poor, overblown performances in films that get widely noted and brilliant ones in films that are ignored. If, like me, you’re amongst the very few who found the disastrous Hammersmith Is Out fascinating despite the million things very obviously wrong with it, and Burton’s performance therein to be outstanding, then a visit to The Medusa Touch is in order, as it offers the rare spectacle of an actor getting a second chance at something which flopped first time round. Just as the film is a lot better than Hammersmith, so Burton’s own performance is better: more rounded, subtler, and here filled with a pain and desperate anger against an evil world that makes his character sympathetic, maybe even, in a very peculiar sense, heroic – and this despite the fact that Morlar cold-bloodedly murders nearly a thousand people in the course of the movie, the majority of whom are complete strangers to him and, as far as we can tell, innocent of any great sin. Morlar becomes almost an angel of death, a man with the power of retribution loose in a world where there is no justice, a man who is so anguished by the sins of life that the power of extinction is the only thing he can employ to cleanse away a deep-rooted evil within the human race. Yet he is himself corrupted by his power, allowing no hope that humanity may ever improve. He can only destroy.
The film, in fact, suggests so many ideas and moral reverberations that it’s no surprise that it fails to do justice to anything like all of them. It settles for being a slambang thriller with an appropriately fiendish sting in its tail, hinting that Morlar, in addition to being the arch-enemy of the human race, is also the embodiment of the very aspect of human life he hates most: bourgeois man’s fascination for death. Morlar literally becomes Death-in-Life, beyond the power of any human agency to stop him. The very enjoyableness of the film is subversive and disturbing: one may emerge from the cinema thinking what terrific entertainment the movie was – but is that the way to react to any film so filled with destruction and human misery? Aren’t we, if we enjoy the film, as corrupt (at least somewhat as corrupt) as John Morlar keeps on saying we are, throughout the whole grisly, blood-spattered proceedings? The Medusa Touch has no voice for the finer human feelings, none of the compassion or acceptance of faults that would characterise a Renoir or Buñuel movie; it looks for a while as if Lee Remick, playing Morlar’s psychiatrist, is to be that voice, but the film rather chickens out here and Remick is too often used simply as a mouthpiece for expository details. Even so, the supporting cast is very adroit. One presumes some front-office compromise led to Lino Ventura being cast as the cop who investigates Morlar’s apparent death (there is some elaborate explanation about his being in England as part of a Common Market exchange scheme), but Ventura’s battered dignity is eloquent (making his attempt to murder Morlar at the end of the film all the more shocking), and the not-quite-friendly banter between this fastidious Frenchman and his xenophobic English colleagues is most shrewdly observed.
If the film doesn’t quite reach the heights it aims at, it is more than promising as an indication of Jack Gold’s future cinema potential. Gold came into movies in the late Sixties via The Bofors Gun and The Reckoning, and was predictably hailed by establishment critics as “bold”, “scathing”, “hard-hitting” and all the other adjectives which, when applied to a new British filmmaker, usually mean pompous, self-serving, condescending, arrogant, loud, or just silly. Those two “personal statements” hold up a lot less well than this commercial assignment. The Medusa Touch has some undeniably ingenious but very look-at-me-I’m-being-clever editing (by Gold’s co-producer), and the special effects in a crucial sequence involving a Morlar-induced plane crash wouldn’t pass muster in a Fifties science-fiction B-movie (though those in the smashing climax inside and outside a collapsing cathedral are first-rate); but, all in all, I’ve not been so exhilarated by a British movie in ages. John Briley’s screenplay is an especial virtue: such clever construction and slashing dialogue are rarely found in British movies that aspire to be something more than a “mere thriller”. I suspect Gold and Briley put entertainment first and ideas second in this film, and that’s almost certainly why the ideas are so fecund and so stimulating.
© 1979 Pierre Greenfield
THE MEDUSA TOUCH
Direction: Jack Gold. Screenplay: John Briley, after the novel by Peter Van Greenaway. Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson. Production design: Peter Mullins. Special effects: Brian Johnston. Editing: Anne V. Coates. Music: Michael J. Lewis. Production: Gold, Coates.
The players: Richard Burton, Lino Ventura, Lee Remick, Harry Andrews, Gordon Jackson, Derek Jacobi, Alan Badel, Marie-Christine Barrault, Robert Lang, Michael Hordern, Jeremy Brett, Michael Byrne.