Telekinesis, aka moving stuff with your mind (for the non-scientific hoi polloi), blew up big time with Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976); soon we had boarding school snake whisperers (Jennifer) and bed bound psychotics (Patrick) filling the screens in an effort to scare audiences. But the most intriguing of the post White lot is The Medusa Touch (1978), a film that ups the scale of destruction while offering one of the most misanthropic views of humanity in horror from the ‘70s. (Which is saying a lot.)
This British-French co-production was released by ITC in the UK in early April, with a world wide rollout shortly thereafter. Every review wasn’t completely terrible; several critics praised the talented cast (Richard Burton, Lee Remick, Lino Ventura) and the special effects, while the rest found it to be another in a growing line of psychic mumbo jumbo, mixed with The Omen’s creative deaths. Around these parts we call that a win, and indeed high production values and solid performances give The Medusa Touch a sheen not afforded it’s more financially restricted brethren.
Our alleged mumbo jumbo starts in a London apartment as author John Morlar (Burton – 1984) sits and watches an American rocket launch on the tellie; he’s been expecting someone, and that someone arrives and from the shadows proceeds to bludgeon Morlar to death with a mantle piece. Enter detective Brunel (Ventura – The Valachi Papers), on loan from the French (and insisted upon by the co-producers) and looking for clues in Morlar’s apartment. It can’t be labeled a murder however, as the victim starts to twitch and moan and he and his pummeled visage are transported to hospital.
So who would try to kill a well known author? Brunel’s first trip is to Morlar’s psychiatrist, Dr. Zonfeld (Remick – The Omen), who informs him that Morlar is obsessed with death; not his own, but rather the death of everyone he knows. In a series of flashbacks, Morlar relays to Zonfeld his many encounters with the uncanny: how he wished his bible banging nanny dead, and his parents, and a cruel teacher at boarding school, and the noisy neighbor – essentially anyone who had done him wrong. The thing is, every wish was granted shortly after he thought it, and soon Morlar is faced with the horrid realization that he is responsible. But even as he miraculously clings to life, he plans events much bigger in scale, events that will affect the entire world…
The Medusa Touch takes the unusual approach of asking the audience to sympathize with Morlar, even though he is a narcissistic monster; the screenplay by John Briley (Gandhi) focuses on John’s misgivings from childhood – and to be fair, he is mistreated somewhat. But John is such a nihilistic imp with definite sociopathic tendencies that the only reaction to his plight is fascination, which is more than enough to hold our attention.
One can certainly thank Burton for that. It’s hard to think of another actor from that time frame who could fill a frame just with his presence and silky baritone, even if he was on the deep back end of a turbulent career. While he does display his notorious bluster, he also hits some subtler notes that show a sliver of humanity behind Morlar’s façade; he is initially torn about his abilities as his books seem to take care of most of his vitriol, but completely succumbs to his powers when he realizes he can affect the change he wants to see – a do-over for humanity.
He’s dangerous to be sure, and the film wisely shows his experiences chronologically to ramp up suspense; as a child he has his parents’ car run them off a cliff – as an adult he has the ability to move much bigger objects, and boy does he ever. The effects are sparse until they become essential; the bigger the object, the more necessary the effects. Not exactly Spielberg quality, but they work well enough. Most of the deaths are either implied or just off camera, but this is a case of quantity beating quality to the punch. Morlar disposes of quite a few folks – some individually, others in large groupings. He certainly becomes a master of multitasking the older he gets.
Since it does shy away from the graphic it can’t reach The Omen levels of WTF-ery yet was clearly modeled after such; unfortunately director Jack Gold (Aces High) doesn’t have the visual acumen of Richard Donner to pull off a truly spectacular geekshow, and instead plays the film as a character study with mild mannered carnage.
Yet it still works, as we’re treated to Morlar’s Mind Massacres with a frequency befitting a straight up slasher more than a BBC drama; and while Gold may not have much of an aesthetic, he is good at crafting tension and getting good work from Remick and Ventura.
Frenchman Ventura particularly works because he’s one of only a couple characters to actually care about; a kind and smiling cop is a nice counterbalance against Morlar’s dripping hatred of the human race. This film wallows in the despair of mankind through his eyes until the very, very ‘70s ending. (Yes, everyone and everything is fucked, thank you very much.) But unlike say, French Extremist cinema, The Medusa Touch is so far removed from reality that one watches with bemusement rather than dread. (Unless you live in constant fear of a cathedral collapsing on you – in which case, dread away.)
Make no mistake, The Medusa Touch is very much a horror film regardless of its high minded pedigree; if Richard Burton tells you he has “a gift for disaster” you’d best believe he’s talking about taking down a 747 and not his marriages. Perhaps he means both; the ‘70s were pretty wild.
The Medusa Touch is available on Blu-ray from Henstooth Video.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: INSEMINOID (1981)