The Medusa Touch is an odd and frequently overlooked 1978 British movie that could belong to any one of three or four genres. Whichever it belongs to it’s an interesting movie.
It was technically a British/French co-production and the cast reflects the growing internationalism of movies in the 70s. Lino Ventura, a prominent French actor who was actually Italian by birth, plays a French police inspector who for some mysterious reason is working for Scotland Yard. Lee Remick is an American psychiatrist practising in London, and Richard Burton is one of her patients. Ventura and Remick get more screen time but Burton dominates the film, not just through his acting presence but because his character is the one around whom everything revolves.
Burton is novelist John Morlar, a man with a self-described talent for disaster. Not for writing about disasters, but for creating them. Death has been his constant companion, striking down anyone who thwarts him or threatens him. It has taken him years to realise that he doesn’t just anticipate accidents and violent deaths, he actually causes them to happen.
His first victims were his parents. A few years later a bullying schoolmaster became a further victim. And so it has gone on. Morlar’s powers, which he has not the slightest understanding of, appear to be growing. They may be responding to his growing despair, his sense of alienation from the world and his ever-increasing hostility towards humanity.
Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick) has spent a considerable amount of time trying to convince him that events such as the deaths of his wife and her lover are just coincidences, but gradually she comes to suspect that he may not be imagining things.
The movie opens with a vicious assault that leaves Morlar in a coma, and the backstory is filled in with a length and complex series of flashbacks that occupy much of the movie’s running time. It’s a technique that has its dangers but director Jack Gold and screenwriter John Briley carry if off very successfully. The plot never becomes confusing despite its complexity. Inspector Brunel (Ventura) is assigned to investigate the attack on Morlar but in order to uncover the identity of the assailant he must first learn to understand Morlar.
The quest takes on added urgency since Morlar has given indications that his next disasters will be in a much more spectacular scale. It has now become a race against time.
This is quite an ambitious picture. There are some impressive effects. This is of course pre-CGI so the effects are achieved mostly with models although the producers also borrowed an entire cathedral.
Burton is fabulous, making Morlar a figure of both pity and dread. Remick and Ventura are very solid. The supporting cast is a galaxy of 1970s British acting talent - Michael Hordern, Gordon Jackson, Harry Andrews, Jeremy Brett and Derek Jacobi are merely the better known faces. But it never feels like a star-laden movie with big names making pointless cameos just for the sake of it. These were the kinds of actors available to British film-makers in the 70s and they turn minor supporting parts into fully fleshed and fascinating characters.
The movie deliberately avoids committing itself to explanations, and the horror comes as much as anything from the fact that even Burton doesn’t know if he’s actually evil or not. Various explanations are suggested, ranging from the supernatural to the science fictional. The movie is structured as a police procedural but with the police facing crimes that are rationally inexplicable. It’s rather like the BBC’s 1979 TV series The Omega Factor, which was in turn very much like an early version of The X-Files.
It’s the kind of mix that could easily have become a mess but it all fits together rather beautifully. And it’s very entertaining.
Network DVD are rapidly becoming one of the best DVD companies out there. The DVD includes a very chatty but highly diverting commentary track with director Jack Gold and horror aficionados Kim Newman and Stephen Jones. This one is definitely worth a purchase.