User login

Medusa Touch, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Network Distributing
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Jack Gold
Richard Burton
Lino Ventura
Lee Remick
Harry Andrews
Gordon Jackson
Bottom Line: 
Click to Play

“The Medusa Touch” plays very much like it was intended as the flamboyant British media tycoon and ITC distributor Sir Lew Grade’s attempt to combine the contemporary 1970s trend for disaster movies (particularly aeroplane crash-related disaster movies) - which, at the time, were still returning good box office for an increasingly troubled film industry - with the voguish supernatural thrillers of the same period. A simultaneous and contradictory fascination ran through the popular culture of the day, leading to the paranormal mind-over-matter pseudoscience of telekinesis, as seen in films such as “Carrie” (1976) – where the mind’s supposedly untapped powers are explicitly ‘mistaken’ for the Devil’s works -- rubbing incongruously up alongside depictions of religiously motivated forms of anti-science, as exemplified in the concurrent, post-Exorcist spate of demon possession/incarnation movies then doing the rounds; the British/American made “The Omen” headed up the crop by managing to find a format that successfully brought disaster movie-like set-pieces together with God-fearing Biblical intimations of the Devil’s influence on earth. The 1970s, after all, was the decade when the world seemed on the edge of going to Hell in a hand-cart; the end times appeared to be written all over the anarchic cocktail of economic meltdown, natural disasters run amok and social and political turmoil now so associated with that decade’s troubles. Peter Van Greenaway’s source novel saw this prolific and provocative pulp novelist (who is out of print and barely remembered today) developing an idea that manages to blend all these popular elements into a plot that also functions as a heady critique of stultified, class-bound British society, with a story about a misanthropic author who discovers that he has the power to create death-dealing disasters just by willing them to occur.

Taken up by television director Jack Gold (“The Naked Civil Servant” [1975]), a Free Cinema veteran who was more interested in Van Greenaway’s  socio-political proselytising and anti-Establishment message than this particular type of genre cinema; and acclaimed editor Anne V. Coates (“Lawrence of Arabia” [1962], “The Elephant Man” [1980]) -- both of whom have producer credits on the film -- and adapted by “Children of the Damned” (1964) scribe John Briley, “The Medusa Touch” is the kind of daft but enjoyable potboiler that features fairly low down on its principle makers’ filmographies (Briley’s Oscar winning screenplays for “Ghandi” and “Cry Freedom” are the worthy calling cards by which his name will no doubt be remembered, but are far less watchable movies), yet it’s a film that was evidently made with exactly the same care and attention as their more critically well-received works, and it has stood the test of time remarkably well as a superior ‘time capsule’ evocation of its era that also happens to continue to hold one’s attention as an accomplished thriller on its own terms.

It’s also still watchable for rather more unfortunate reasons. The original novel featured a cover image (viewable on its Wickipedia page), based on one of the main set-pieces of the story, in which the telekinetic/cursed author, John Morlar, puts on a demonstration of his powers for his disbelieving psychiatrist by making a jumbo jet crash into a tower block in central London. This also features in the film, and seems eerily prescient now in the shadow of 9/11. In fact, disturbingly, all of the main disasters in this 1978 movie have since had their counterparts in real-life -- from the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster to The Chernobyl nuclear meltdown!  

Thanks to some intelligent high-powered International casting which brings together top billed Welsh-born acting icon Richard Burton as Morlar, Italian star of French cinema Lino Ventura, and the American actress Lee Remick alongside a roster of great British character actors and some up-and-coming doyens of the industry in guest roles (a lithe, young, facially hirsute Derek Jacobi pops up at one point as Morlar’s publisher!), there is a considerable element of nostalgic charm attaining to the film, which adds considerably to its virtues for the modern viewer. Remick had of course just come off of filming “The Omen” (1976) while Burton’s last gig has been John Boorman’s misunderstood “Exorcist II: The Heritic” (1977). Both were reluctant to venture into genre waters again so soon according to Gold (speaking during his audio commentary for the movie, recorded with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones), but such casting does all the work in advance of staking out the supernatural/paranormal territory on which the plot is to designed to dwell while allowing an unusually complex, layered and multifaceted screenplay structure (which had the potential to come across as confused and disjointed in less skilled hands) to be unfolded on screen with exemplary clarity by the directing-editing team of Gold and Coates.

The financing package required to pay for some of the more demanding sequences in the latter half of the picture results in this British/French co-production having to navigate a few imponderable quirks before we even get to the oddities of the plot itself, but it manages the task fairly smoothly. For instance, though being in the main a relatively faithful adaptation of the novel, the film removes its Police Inspector central character and replaces him with a French lead on the flimsy premise of there being a cultural exchange program in operation during the investigation. The book had been one in a series that featured Van Greenaway’s Inspector Cherry character, but in the film we get a dubbed Lino Ventura as Inspector Brunel instead! As it happens, bizarre though it may have been to write out the main character in a novel series (like adapting a Sherlock Holmes story and not including Sherlock Holmes), the change actually works to the story’s benefit: for one thing, Ventura’s hangdog countenance is perfect for the role of the down-at-heel sleuth, the actor having already just played a somewhat similar part in Francesco Rosi’s “Cadaveri eccellenti” (1976). But the film’s excoriating portrayal of the British Establishment gains that much extra traction and weight from having the main character who cements the entire film together be an outsider who, by investigating an attack on someone who is the product of a particular upbringing and culture that he is not himself part of, becomes an observer to the traditions and customs of the society that formed the victim’s personality -- at one remove from its values, but looking in on its peccadilloes and therefore able to observe its eccentricities and perverseness with an objective eye.

The story’s complex, flashback-within-flashback structure is initiated by the discovery of the body of ex-lawyer turned novelist John Morlar (Burton) -- with his brains bashed out by his own Napoleon statuette in front of his TV (already it sounds like a game of Cluedo). In a unique development in the history of murder investigations, the victim starts breathing again on the floor of his study, just as Inspector Brunel and his younger British assistant Sergeant Duff (Michael Byrne) (Lewis to Brunel’s Inspector Morse: a series which Jack Gold later directed) are about to leave the scene of the crime.

At the hospital, Gordon Jackson pops up as a neurosurgeon to inform the Inspector that Morlar’s brain ‘shouldn’t be working at all after the way it’s been smashed’ even as Morlar’s encephalogram reading continues to get stronger and stronger. The heavily bandaged body in the bed at the hospital is clearly not Burton. And although the top star of the movie is not actually on screen that often, his appearances are memorable enough, spaced out through the film, to make you think he’s in it more than he is. Instead, his story is pieced together in a series of nicely crafted vignettes that take a playlette form, as Brunel spends the rest of the film attempting to solve the mystery of who wanted Morlar dead using a variety of means such as interviewing his henpecked neighbour Mr Pennington (Robert Lang) and various other acquaintances, as well as reading the sour philosophical musings scribbled down in his journal. Most of the material needed for reconstructing Morlar’s life history and attitudes comes as a result of his interview of a key witness: Morlar's psychiatrist Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick), who helpfully recounts to the Inspector her sessions with the disturbed and now critically ill novelist.

This allows Burton’s presence to be felt in voice-over form if not always in actual screen time, and the screenplay gives him enough juicy material to convey the cynical and utterly jaundiced world view that the friendless, increasingly isolated figure of Morlar dispenses during his encounters with Remick’s always elegantly turned-out yet disbelieving shrink, without us having him necessarily be in front of us that often. Morlar, it seems, believes himself to possess ‘a gift for disaster’: dotted through the film are several Burton-narrated episodes from Morlar’s childhood which paint an ugly picture indeed of lower-middle class bourgeois life in England before and after the war, and explain why he has come to believe that he has the strange power to wish death and disaster upon anyone who displeases him. It all begins with the hell-fire spouting nanny he wishes to be rid of in infancy during a bout of measles, who promptly dies the next day. Next on the list are his snobbish narrow minded parents (Norman Bird and Jennifer Jayne) who get knocked off a cliff while on a picnic at the Reculver Towers on the Kentish Coast, when the hand-break on their roadster mysteriously releases itself during the annual family holiday at Herne Bay. Later, a sneering schoolmaster (John Normington) at Morlar’s boarding school, who makes the fourteen-year-old boy pick up leaves in the pouring rain, initiates a psychic revenge that results in the entire school (which appears to be Oakley Court) being razed to the ground.

Basically, we see the rationale behind the anti-establishment adult Morlar’s distaste for God, Queen and Country in microcosm, being formed out of his mistreatment as a child and the abuse which is shown to exist at the heart of the family, school, and in British society in general. Although adhering to the mainstream genre thriller format -- with its star names, special effects, and rousing orchestrated score (a memorable and effective one supplied by “Theatre of Blood” composer Michael J. Lewis) – this is a film that is just as determined to show the corruption within the heart of the pillars of the British establishment as any arthouse offering like Lindsay Anderson’s “If ….” (1968), but ends up going about it by quite literally bringing those pillars down  in the name of spectacle, with a big old disaster set-piece in which an unhinged Morlar aims to turn telekinetic terrorist by seeking revenge on the world from his hospital bed and unleashing his mind powers on the fictional Minster Abbey (obviously meant to be Westminster Abbey, but with Bristol Cathedral playing the role, and two red double decker buses passing by outside to make you believe we’re still in London) during a visit from the Queen and a host of Commonwealth dignitaries. This supplies the motive for the attempt on Morlar’s life, and Brunel finds his investigations are monitored by ‘people in high places’ represented by Harry Andrews’ Assistant Police Commissioner, who is worried that Morlar ‘knew too much about what goes on in the corridors of power.’     

Burton might not be on screen that often, but when he is he makes sure he commands our attention. The actor doesn’t look too well most of the time, his dyed hair becoming increasingly dishevelled and his jowly face glistening with sweat as Morlar gradually comes to embrace the destructive powers at his fingertips rather than feel guilty or confused about their provenance; indeed, Burton’s sickly, dewy eyed jaundice fits the unravelling mental state of the character to a tee: even the similarly shifty-looking Michael Hordern looks terrified when his fortune teller cameo crosses paths with our dangerous anti-hero and sees something he’d rather not in his palm reading. Soon Morlar is actually taking pleasure in dispensing with his adulterous wife (Marie-Christine Barrault) and her playboy lover (Jeremy Brett, dressed like Jon Pertwee’s incarnation of Doctor Who), and causing his next door neighbour’s wife to throw herself from the window of her flat because her constant hectoring of her husband is disturbing his writing (Gold cynically choreographs this shocking incident with the prat fall music on the soundtrack of a Halas & Bachelor cartoon that happens to be showing on the TV when Mr Pennington turns it on to drown out his wife’s hysterical nagging!). Morlar’s status as a ‘Medusa’ -- using his powers to oppose the gods -- comes into focus during his Barrister years, when his defence of James Hazeldine’s political pamphleteer goes belly up because of an intransigent conservative judge (played by Dr Hitchcock himself and “The Blood Beast Terror” star Robert Flemyng) and, thereafter, the cutting down to size of bullying and thick-headed leaders of state becomes his primary motivation for getting back at the world.

“The Medusa Touch” features some of the most deliciously misanthropic dialogue ever committed to celluloid as Burton fulminates against the platitudes of religion and the State at every opportunity; but Gold also spends most of the movie subtly backing up his despair, portraying a capital that looks shabby and grey and portraying British domestic life as dowdy and filled with quiet, unassuming despair. For most of the film we’re kind of on Morlar’s side, until his rage becomes an unhinged form of megalomania and he orchestrates the jumbo jet crash out of pure malice, the aftermath of which forms a grim backdrop to Inspector Brunel’s investigations throughout the film.

The films deliberately rather faded look, engineered by ITC art director Peter Mullins, seems a rather unusual approach for a picture that was presumably aiming to ride the coat tails of similar glossy all-star supernatural thrillers like “The Omen”, but Arthur Ibbetson’s cinematography (“The Railway Children” [1970], “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” [1971]) captures all of the film’s real life locations with an evocative realism while the film as a whole seems to paint an accurate (if fairly depressing) portrait of what it felt like to live in 1970s Britain, with its dour provincial seclusion artificially brightened by the pomp and circumstance of what Morlar terms ‘the Royal Chieftain and the whole gang of international parasites’.  The special optical effects and miniatures, although probably thought primitive by today’s standards, are surprisingly effective, with supervisor Brian Johnson managing to make the plane crash into the tower look far more spectacular than one would expect from a film of this vintage. Similarly, the fall of the Abbey is well filmed and dynamically edited (as is the entire movie), providing a spectacular finale of falling polystyrene masonry and Fuller’s earth ‘stone dust’ toppling onto the heads of a complacent Arch Deacon (Malcolm Tierney) and sundry Heads of State (although Gold backs out of allowing Her Majesty cop it too!) – one wonders what the authorities at Bristol Cathedral felt about the mess afterwards!

With its downbeat conclusion, which ends the film on the suggestion of impending nuclear catastrophe as an indestructible Morlar shakily scrawls the site of his next attack – Windscale (the nuclear power and reprocessing plant had just changed its name to Sellafield in response to just this kind of association with contamination and disaster since the fire of 1957), the film efficiently taps into that sense of rapid decline then permeating the country, tying it in to fashionable supernatural/paranormal hijinks with aplomb, and recalling Nigel Kneal’s Quatermass series in the process (which itself was about to get all dystopian in its 1979 TV incarnation). It was not a huge success at the time, but definitely deserves its chance at re-evaluation today thanks to this excellent and natural-looking HD transfer showcased by Network Distributing’s new Blu-ray edition, which provides excellent means for accomplishing the job. An informative and very enjoyable audio commentary with director and producer Jack Gold, moderated by critics Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, provides the main extra included here, and furnishes the listener with plenty of background on the making of the movie. An added bonus comes in the form of just under twenty-minutes’ worth of behind the scenes footage taken during filming at Bristol Cathedral (which mainly just confirms how dull hanging around a film set can be) and showing extras being instructed before a short scene with Harry Andrews is shot, plus some footage in the interior of the cathedral during the shooting of the fall of the abbey. A theatrical trailer and a short gallery of poster art and production stills rounds off the extras on what is a valuable release.


Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

Your rating: None