Tuesday 17 September 2019

Movie Review: The Medusa Touch (1978)

A supernatural psychological disaster horror film, The Medusa Touch delves into the human capacity to cause harm through the story of a brain refusing to die.

In London, author John Morlar (Richard Burton) is bludgeoned nearly to death in his apartment while watching live television coverage of a space mission to the moon going wrong. Confined to a hospital bed in a deep coma, his brain remarkably shows continued activity. With London recovering from the shock of a jumbo jet crashing into a highrise causing hundreds of casualties, French police detective Brunel (Lino Ventura), part of an exchange program, starts to investigate the assault and connects with psychologist Dr. Zonfeld (Lee Remick).

Zonfeld had been treating Morlar for years, as he believed himself responsible for multiple deaths through sheer willpower dating back to his childhood. Flashbacks reveal incidents involving his nurse, parents, and schoolmaster. As an adult Morlar practiced as a lawyer and was convinced his mental rage caused harm to a judge and a neighbour. With no shortage of potential suspects seeking revenge, Brunel realizes that as long as Morlar's brain is still active, worse is to come.

An interesting hybrid tapping into multiple 1970s film trends including The Omen-style horror and large scale disaster epics, The Medusa Touch does not quite fit into any one category but nevertheless carries its own impact. The John Briley script adapts the 1973 Peter Van Greenaway book with clarity, allowing director Jack Gold to elegantly balance events between Brunel's investigation and Morlar's troubled past, all set against the context of catastrophes still smoldering and about to occur.

Scenes of brooding, supernatural death build up to satisfying punctuation marks, and intermingle with light psychology, telekinesis and a theme of helplessness and self-doubt. And in the final act the film works its way to a larger scale altogether, the mayhem expanding from personal to brutal.

As a British / French co-production the main detective was rather clumsily changed to a Frenchman, but Lino Ventura takes the role and runs with it, bringing a welcome air of frumpled French pragmatism to the otherwise prim and proper English surroundings. Richard Burton sits in his gloomy comfort zone as John Morlar, Gold deploying plenty of extreme close-up shots of the actor's eyes but thankfully reining in his more bombastic tendencies. Lee Remick is adequate but cold, while the supporting cast includes Harry Andrews, Gordon Jackson and Alan Badel.

The film features decent special effects as detective Brunel's dogged delving into the past reveals the carnage left behind by Morlar's brain willing bad things to happen. A runaway car hurtles down a hill all on its own, a fire burns through a large school, and later on, the death and destruction expand to a larger scale, some of it difficult to watch from the more modern perspective tainted by global terrorism.

Which only serves to highlight The Medusa Touch's main theme. Morlar's remarkable story is a metaphor for the capacity to imagine and then act upon the worst possible outcomes through the red mist of rage, a fatalistic stance on humanity's ability to ever evolve past solving conflicts by violent means. One man may die, but the deep-seated readiness to cause death and destruction lives on.

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