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THE MEDUSA TOUCH (1978)

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"Most patients come because they feel the world is too much for them. Mr Morlar felt that he was too much for the world."

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Director:   Jack Gold

Starring: Richard Burton, Lino Ventura, Lee Remick, Michael Byrne, Harry Andrews, Gordon Jackson, Derek Jacobi, Robert Lang

Screenplay: John Briley, based upon the novel by Peter Van Greenaway

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Synopsis: As writer John Morlar (Richard Burton) is watching television coverage of a doomed attempt to rescue a crew of astronauts stranded near the moon, someone enters his apartment and beats him savagely about the head with a small statuette. The following morning, Inspector Brunel (Lino Ventura), a French police officer in London as part of an exchange program, and Sergeant Duff (Michael Byrne) inspect Morlar's body. Pennington (Robert Lang), the neighbour who saw Morlar's door open and sounded the alarm, insists that Morlar never had visitors. Brunel finds Morlar's journal. It is full of dark and melancholy - and violent - reflections upon the state of humanity. Brunel's eye is caught by the random phrase "West Front", and by the name "Zonfeld". Suddenly, to the astonishment of the policemen, Morlar starts to breathe again…. Brunel succeeds in tracking down "Zonfeld": it is Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick), Morlar's psychiatrist. She is deeply shocked by the news of the assault, insisting that Morlar had no enemies - and no friends, either. She reveals to Brunel that Morlar suffered delusions, believing that he was cursed with "a gift for disaster", the ability to will death; a belief reinforced by a series of tragedies in his life. As a child suffering from measles, Morlar was told hideous tales of hellfire and damnation by his nursemaid, until he began to pray that she might burn in hell. The woman was dead within days…. While staying with his parents in a seaside hotel, the young Morlar overheard his mother's harsh criticisms of himself. Later that afternoon, the boy watched as, for no apparent reason, the family car began to roll down a grassy slope towards his parents, who were strolling by a cliff edge…. Dr Zonfeld confirms to Brunel that Morlar had no actual involvement with any of these deaths, but that the man himself had told her that he had known they were "inevitable". Brunel reflects that, if Morlar believed so strongly in the existence of his "gift", he may have convinced someone else as well. The Inspector insists on returning later to Dr Zonfeld's office to hear more of Morlar's story. He then goes to the hospital to check on the comatose man. He is received with hostility by Dr Johnson (Gordon Jackson), who resents the fact that the incurable Morlar is tying up a bed and some vital equipment, while the hospital is struggling to deal with the aftermath of a jumbo jet crash. Leaving the hospital, Brunel is waylaid by the Assistant Commissioner of Police (Harry Andrews), who tells him that "interested parties" want him to drop everything else and concentrate on finding out who attacked Morlar. Back at Morlar's apartment, Brunel shows Duff the author's scrapbooks, which contain newspaper clippings recounting endless disasters and human misery. The final entry is the London plane crash. Another visit to Dr Zonfeld elicits the story of a young Morlar's clash with a sadistic schoolmaster, which ended in fire and death…. From Morlar's neighbours, Duff learns that Pennington blamed Morlar for his wife's death: an event that followed hard upon an argument between the couple that Morlar was forced to overhear, and which ended with the hypochondriacal woman's half-hearted threat to throw herself out of the window, and Morlar's angry retort, "Oh, go ahead and jump!" She did….

Comments: "I have a gift for disaster," John Morlar tells his psychiatrist in the course of The Medusa Touch, and by 1978 Richard Burton might have been speaking for the direction that his film career had taken over the preceding decade. Although the film is by no means a catastrophe on the scale of the previous year's Exorcist II: The Heretic (indeed - how could it be?), for Burton, The Medusa Touch hardly represented a step in the right direction. The film has its moments, granted, but it is ultimately a hollow exercise - and far too tasteful for its own good. With its low-key approach to its subject matter, its deliberate pacing and its quality cast, The Medusa Touch was clearly a film made with pretensions of importance. It is, in fact, an attempt at that most difficult of all horror sub-genres, the stately horror film. A slow, steady build-up to a crowning horror can work, of course, but The Medusa Touch ultimately falls flat because it never really about anything - or rather, because it misjudges where the true horror of its subject matter lies. To me, the critical moment of The Medusa Touch comes when, during a therapy session, an anguished Morlar demands to know why his power is always destructive. No answer is forthcoming, not even an inquiry as to whether he has ever tried to accomplish something positive with it: Dr Zonfeld simply brushes the question aside, as she does so much of what Morlar says to her. (I like Lee Remick's Zonfeld, but all the same, I'm not sure I'd care to have her as my psychiatrist. I'm no expert, of course, but her standard approach of "You're delusional - stop it!" doesn't strike me as being all that helpful - even were she dealing with a patient who actually was delusional.) The film itself is little less dismissive, and that is its critical error. Apparently failing to recognise the potential for true psychological horror inherent in the story of John Morlar, the makers of The Medusa Touch focussed instead upon the purely external consequences of his existence. The result is a film sorely lacking in substance. This wouldn't have mattered so much if the film-makers had served up some genuine horror in its place, but unfortunately, when it came to actually depicting the results of Morlar's mood swings, they seem to have gotten cold feet - or worse, contracted a fatal dose of "good taste". In spite of its litany of disaster and death, The Medusa Touch is doggedly, dully bloodless - right up to the final section of the film. But I'll have more to say about that - quite a lot more - a little later on….

Much about The Medusa Touch seems designed specifically to test the patience of the viewer. First of all, it suffers from the age-old horror film problem of having the audience countless miles ahead of the characters in terms of belief. The film presents its central impossibility early on - namely, that Morlar has not merely been the victim of a string of tragedies in the course of his life, but has actually caused the tragedies himself, through the power of his will. The viewer swallows this at a single gulp, of course - and is then forced to wait impatiently while those investigating the attack upon Morlar take their own sweet time about reaching the same conclusion. In fairness, The Medusa Touch is less extreme in this respect than many films, at least as far as Inspector Brunel is concerned. He, unable to believe that so many tragedies in one lifetime could be a coincidence, begins quite early on to contemplate the incredible. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the supreme rationalist Dr Zonfeld, whose point-blank refusal not just to entertainment such a notion, but even to go so far along with it as, "Okay, let's just suppose----", finally provokes Morlar into proving his story - with widespread and fatal consequences. Another problem with The Medusa Touch is its flashback structure. The film consists largely of scenes of those who knew Morlar recounting their experiences with him, intercut with Zonfeld's recollections of their therapy sessions. The reluctance of the film-makers to show the outcome of Morlar's displeasure can at least in part be attributed to a half-hearted attempt to create some mystery about his actual role in the various catastrophes, particularly in the early part of the film. However, in practical terms all this means is that in place of action, of drama, we get talk - and talk - and talk - and talk…. Moreover, there is a deadly sameness in the way these stories are told. Even Brunel finally interrupts a witness with a weary, "Let me guess----", as yet another account of Morlar's doings ends with a description of him holding a potential victim - "with his glittering eye", as it were. The other annoying aspect of The Medusa Touch is its murky "government conspiracy" subplot - and "murky" is being kind. All sorts of ominous hints are dropped about the enemies in high places that Morlar has earned for himself with his improbably effective books linking "power with evil". "Interested parties" made sure his books were never reviewed; the same "interested parties" see that Brunel is assigned to investigate the attack on Morlar to the exclusion of everything else. In the long run, however, there is no pay-off to any of this; it simply adds up to an awful lot of time-wasting. (Quite a lot of time is also spent upon Morlar's rantings against society in general and the government in particular. But when Morlar rants - things happen….) You would not blame the viewer who, at this point in the film, decided that he had something more exciting to do with his life - like watching paint dry.

But those who are able to endure all the longeurs that are scattered throughout the film will ultimately be richly rewarded with entertainment of the most perverse and evil kind. In the final analysis, The Medusa Touch is nothing less than a wickedly enjoyable tale of the ultimate wish-fulfilment; a film for every put-upon individual who ever muttered darkly, "I'll show them! I'll show them all!" - even while knowing full well that they will never do anything of the kind. (Oh, dear. I suppose, this day and age being what it is, that I should append a disclaimer to that remark. So: The Medusa Touch is a wickedly enjoyable tale of wish-fulfilment for anyone who ever muttered, "I'll show them all!" - and who has the ability to tell the difference between reality and fantasy.) That The Medusa Touch works so well as a guilty pleasure can be attributed almost entirely to the contribution of Richard Burton - which is not to say, necessarily, that he gives a good performance. As did The Heretic the year before, The Medusa Touch features Burton at his most constipatedly intense. It's all here: the clenched teeth, the bulging veins, the close-ups of the starting eyes, and of course, the sweat. But given the overwrought nature of the character of John Morlar, these things are not always out of place in The Medusa Touch - and upon occasion, are even surprisingly effective, particularly in combination with some of the ripest dialogue I have heard in many a day. Whether we have Peter Van Greenaway or John Briley to thank for this I couldn't say, but every time Morlar opens his mouth a positive deluge of purple prose bursts forth - and Burton makes the absolute most of it. Two scenes in particular stand out. In the first, Morlar, at the time a practising barrister, launches into a "closing argument" that turns into a tirade against the glorification of war. A fine and impassioned speech it is, but made to the wrong audience: a vengeful judge takes his anger and disgust out upon Morlar's unfortunate client, hitting him with a maximum sentence for what is at worse a misdemeanour - and ending Morlar's legal career in the process. (No prizes for guessing what happens to the judge.) In the other - which really is quite brutally funny - Morlar excoriates his faithless wife and her lover ("My God!" the interloper exclaims in astonishment. "You really are as foul as she says!") before cheerfully sending them off to their inevitable doom. While these two scenes stand out, others are improved by being narrated by Morlar. Whatever one thinks of Burton's performance here, the impact of his voice is indisputable.

And there is a further scene that deserves mention simply because it is probably the only one in the film that can be praised without reservation: that in which Morlar inadvertently "wills" his ghastly, shrieking, shrewish neighbour to jump out of the window. In contrast to the overripe histrionics that characterise most of The Medusa Touch, this single sequence has a reality about it, and a degree of psychological acuteness, that is both unexpected and refreshing. Just this one time, Morlar's situation is one that any of us could be in - that many of us probably have been in - and his irritation, and his subsequent loss of temper, are a perfectly natural response - except that this response happens to have fatal consequences. (There is some nice direction from Jack Gold here, and acting from Robert Lang, too, as the tale is recounted in flashback. We see Pennington's slowly-growing bewilderment, and then horror, as the significance of his empty living-room dawns upon him - and then we cut from Pennington looking out of the window then, to him looking out of the window now, as the police officers walk away.) Most of The Medusa Touch is so overblown and melodramatic that you never really feel anything for Morlar. His situation is certainly piteous, but he himself is so self-pitying, so self-absorbed, and so self-righteous, that it's hard to work up to any real feeling of sympathy for him. But just in this single instance, everything clicks into place - and we are encouraged to wonder what it would be like to live like Morlar; to know that every time we said, or even thought, an impatient, "Oh, drop dead!" - someone did…. But, alas - the death of Grace Pennington is a tiny frisson of the genuinely unsettling adrift in a raging ocean of meaningless sound and fury. As the body count grows in The Medusa Touch, the film becomes, perversely, harder and harder to take seriously. There's just too much of it. Disaster is piled upon disaster, death upon death. It ought to be disturbing. Instead, it's rather comical - up to a point.

Up to a point. The Medusa Touch is one of those films that have been overtaken by recent history; granted a power to affect an audience far beyond that which it possessed at the time of its production. The critical point in the film comes when Morlar invades Zonfeld's apartment. Angry and frustrated by her refusal to take him seriously, to even genuinely listen to him, he resolves to give her a demonstration of his power - and does so by willing a jumbo jet to fly into a skyscraper. The special effects work in this sequence is extremely well-executed; distressingly well-executed. This was a powerful, upsetting scene when The Medusa Touch was first released. These days, it's well-nigh impossible to watch. And the plane crash itself is not all. We see that happen in a flashback positioned towards the end of the film, as Zonfeld finally brings herself to describe the scene in her apartment to Inspector Brunel. Before this, indeed right throughout the action, as Brunel travels back and forth through the London streets, we have been forced to view the aftermath of the crash: devastated buildings, pieces of the shattered plane being carried away, fatality lists in the newspapers. Undoubtedly, many viewers will find all of this very difficult to watch. (I was, frankly, astonished when The Medusa Touch turned up on cable. I had it on my list of films we wouldn't be seeing again any time soon. Luckily for me, though, my cable provider turned out to be completely lacking in tact and good taste. [Okay, that's unfair. I imagine they just didn't bother to screen the film before it was scheduled.]) And the plane crash and its consequences aside - The Medusa Touch manages to get even more topically painful. Having appointed himself a one-man judge, jury and executioner, Morlar takes it upon himself to protest the money being "wasted" on the space program by bringing about a disaster in space (not a crash, thankfully, a stranding). It is this act that opens the film, and that provokes the savage, bloody attack upon Morlar himself.

The plane crash is not the true climax of The Medusa Touch, although I imagine that most viewers will find subsequent events to be fairly anti-climactic. Or perhaps this depends upon your political persuasion. The attack upon Morlar should have killed him, of course, but it does not - simply because he refuses to die, as his mystified doctor reports to Brunel. (In an evocative little moment, the doctor points to Morlar's jagged EEG, and comments that what's left of his brain is screaming.) Morlar, needless to say, is not the man to let a little thing like massive brain damage slow him down. We know that he has identified another suitable target for his righteous wrath, in the costly restoration of a London cathedral. Morlar's oath, as we have heard, is to "bring the edifice down upon their unworthy heads"; the occasion he chooses, a thanksgiving ceremony to mark the beginning of the restoration, which is to be attended by many dignitaries - including the royal family. (Not just the royal family, though: among the other invitees are - "the Commonwealth heads of government". YES!! Malcolm go squish now! Heh, heh, heh….) Brunel, however, has by this time accepted the truth about Morlar, and understands only too well the significance of his sudden violent brainwave activity. The final section of the film depicts the police inspector's desperate race against time to convince others of the danger and to stop the thanksgiving ceremony - or at least, to prevent the attendance of the royals. (Dammit, Brunel! - mind your own business! Call yourself a Frenchman!?) Morlar, however, is not so easily thwarted….

The Medusa Touch is, for better or worse, dominated by Richard Burton; struggling vainly against his central maelstrom of overacting, Lino Ventura and Lee Remick are so low-key as to be almost invisible. Still, they do what they can; and Ventura in particular manages to project a great deal of sleepy-eyed charm as Inspector Brunel. The Medusa Touch was based upon one of a series of novels by Peter Van Greenaway, all of them centring on Police Inspector Cherry - who, as you may have surmised, was neither French nor Italian. (I am not currently in a position to know how much of the novel survived in the screenplay. However, I do have a copy of the novel of The Medusa Touch on order. Perhaps I'll pass it on to my good friend Zack Handlen, and see what he can make of it. [Sadistic bitch, ain't I!?]) The casting of Lino Ventura can obviously be ascribed to the fact that The Medusa Touch was a UK-Italian co-production; internally, Brunel's appointment is justified by the invention of a French-English exchange program, one created so that - as Brunel puts it - the police officers of London and Paris can "acquire each other's weaknesses". Despite the anachronistic nature of his own position, Brunel greets Zonfeld with, "I was expecting a man!" "I was expecting an English police officer," she retorts, not unreasonably. (No explanation at all, by the way, is ever offered for the American Zonfeld's presence in England. And just in case you were wondering - yes, Zonfeld is referred to throughout simply as "Zonfeld".) But beyond its three central characters, The Medusa Touch is worthy of attention purely for its supporting cast, which is nothing short of extraordinary. Sit back and enjoy this parade of talent - a number of these actors present for one scene only, but very welcome all the same: Gordon Jackson as Morlar's doctor; Derek Jacobi as his publisher; Harry Andrews as the Assistant Commissioner of Police; Marie-Christine Barrault as Morlar's unfaithful wife; Jeremy Brett as her smug actor lover; Michael Hordern as a palmist whom Morlar in his desperation consults - and who recoils in nauseated horror after one glance at his client's hand; Robert Flemyng, Dr Hichcock himself, as the hanging judge on the receiving end of Morlar's evil eye; and Norman Bird and British genre mainstay Jennifer Jayne as Morlar's insensitive parents. Whew! (There's also a very brief glimpse of Ian Marter, who shortly before The Medusa Touch completed his tour of duty on Dr Who.) No film with such a cast can be entirely negligible, and so it is with The Medusa Touch. In addition to this remarkable line-up of actors, the score by Michael J. Lewis is also noteworthy; in fact, it deserves to be in a more successful production. It is difficult to know how to summarise The Medusa Touch. It is sometimes engaging, sometimes dull, occasionally disturbing, and frequently rather silly. Still, if you can give yourself up to its excesses, you'll probably have quite a good time with it - particularly if you hide a sadistic streak beneath your more socially acceptable exterior. Needless to say - I find The Medusa Touch to be - a great deal of fun….

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