A moving portrayal of a soulless man…
An author uses his powers of telekinesis to kill in a seventies supernatural horror movie.
“The Medusa Touch”: Trailer – Out on Blu-Ray 15/09/2014, Network Distributing and photos © Warner Bros Pictures
Had the so bad they’re good films been included as a separate Oscar Category in 1978 there would have been tough competition for this accolade. This fight for an Oscar would come from five movies of this sadly unsung genre, all surprisingly led by five previous Oscar-nominated or winning actors.
Picture with me as I imagine that these films and actors are read by a youngish Lee Grant. So as she announces the nominees, with Jack Nicholson by her side. The nominees are announced as Avalanche (with Rock Hudson), Damien: Omen II (with William Holden), The Swarm (with Michael Caine) and Starcrash (with Christopher Plummer). The fourth nomination and winner in my books has to be Richard Burton in The Medusa Touch.
The Medusa Touch is a film I’ve always enjoyed. This since my first viewing with my dad many, many years ago. I remember he chuckled his way through the hammed up acting from the stellar British cast and the special effects. This was echoed years later while watching this film again and this time with my Darlin Husband who additionally mercilessly riffed the script and Burton’s performance.
The film also co-stars Lee Remick, Lino Ventura and a British supporting cast. Others included actors easily recognised from their later roles. Michael Byrne later became a nasty Nazi in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and he was also an actor who played The Master in Doctor Who. Derek Jacobi and actor Jeremy Brett both later became Sherlock Holmes. Added to this list we have a fellow Scot, Gordon Jackson, and Burton’s oft on-screen companions, Michael Hordern and Harry Andrews.
The film starts with the attempted murder of a middle-aged man in an armchair watching television. This is in a pre-credits scene where a TV anchorman reports on some astronauts, their mission reportedly headed for disaster. An unknown assailant enters the man’s unlocked flat. After it appears the astronauts have died, this apparent guest strikes the man brutally on the head with a statue of Napoleon.
The man – an author named John Morlar (Richard Burton) – falls to the ground, motionless. Blood splattering everywhere. This crime scene was then visited by a French Inspector in an uncrumpled Mac, Brunel (Lino Ventura). He’s surprised to find despite this severe battering to the head, Morlar returns almost from the grave as he starts breathing again.
At the hospital, Morlar’s head to be heavily bandaged and he was unable to talk. A heart monitor shows a slow irregular heartbeat showing how weak his body is. However, on another monitor, his brainwaves are remarkably still active.
A police investigation takes place into this attempted murder headed by Brunel and his young assistant Duff (Byrne). A journal is found with Morlar writing some apparently cryptic notes, stating his concerns about the West front, a meeting with L and the name Zonfeld.
Brunel talks to Morlar’s neighbour, about this incident and to Zonfeld, who is revealed as his psychoanalyst (Remick). Zonfeld tells Morlar’s back story with more flashbacks than the Dallas episode which revealed who shot JR Ewing.
Morlar was believed to have severe mental health problems by many who crossed his path. He was apparently delusional and with a preoccupation with the occult. Morlar believing that from his childhood he caused the death of many significant people encountered throughout his life.
These including his despised nanny, his uncaring and unfeeling parents, his teacher who disciplined him as his school burnt down, a cruel judge at a trial and Morlar’s bitchy wife and her lover. These people all dying in untimely accidents after provoking his anger and disgust. This making Burton ideal for this leading role as no one can perform disgust better, as seen in this performance.
The film shows flashback scenes of both death and destruction and these recounted by Morlar during his visits to Zonfeld. Morlar’s even kept a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings of world disasters that he believes he’s responsible for. After a number of sessions with her, Morlar asks Zonfeld to visit him at his London home. This is to convince her his delusions are true.
In this flashback scene coldly and without emotion, he wills a passenger filled jumbo jet to explode into a building in front of her. She watching this incident take place from his window, confirms the true horror of his beliefs. She now believing his thoughts affect others…
The plane crash along with her observations of Morlar before, during and in the aftermath of this convince Zonfeld of the dangers of this man. That his delusions are based on his reality rather than a symptom of mental health. Zonfeld offers her agitated patient a sedative to help him sleep. Then it is back to the present as those journals tell of more death and disaster to come…
With much of this film and the flashbacks narrated by Burton telling this of this man’s eerie and macabre beliefs, and his attempts to understand his powers. It’s also a revealing character study. This of a man in anguish, fear and torment surrounding his perceived telekinetic powers.
Burton’s powerfully acted monologues and often expressionless performance is in turn frightened and heartless. The actor was able to convey his full range of unresolved anger, hatred and contempt for those who’ve hurt him with his cold, steely gaze.
But in turn, Morlar’s guilt was more devastatingly felt as he explains the extent of his fears of hurting innocent people. This compared to when he unleashed his anger on those who he felt deserved it.
The well written, flowery and poetic script proving a wonderful companion to Burton’s gravitas, presence and strengths as an actor. Those flashback scenes with a Burton led script as a barrister, author and patient are well suited to showing his range as an actor.
Burton giving a passionately strong, captivating, credible and intense performance in each of his different roles in these different roles. This is from his previous theatre trained portrayals in Shakespeare and the classics. I’m sure you will agree only lines like this deserve to have a Burton say them;
On killing his nanny, Morlar states…
She was an Irish bitch, priest ridden, rosary raked and in desperate need of the consolation of the damned….get you hence, the Lord will no more dwell among you. …..Night after night she filled me with visions of the blood red hell she longed for on earth.
Until one night, boiling with measles, I closed my eyes and prayed to the Devil. “Dear Lucifer, let her burn in hellfire as you’re burning me”. Next day she took to her bed and died.
The way these lines are delivered showing a chilling side to this character… with him believing those deaths “inevitable”… or as Zonfeld suggests an author with a “lurid” fascination with words.
The other members of the cast supporting Burton admirably, with a spot the actor with all too brief moments with Gordon Jackson as an uncaring and brisk doctor in those hospital scenes, Derek Jacobi as Morlar’s unconcerned publisher Townley – who could easily win a Noel Edmonds lookalike competition – and Michael Hordern as a petrified fortune-teller.
Many flashbacks gave more us a further understanding of Morlar’s character and also supporting Morlar’s deadly concerns. Lee Remick as his psychoanalyst plays her role as icily cool, calm and detached. This demeanour unwavering and her even and controlled performance not changing in her scenes with the French detective and with her patient.
The special effects like Damien: Omen II are now often more amusing than horror filmed with credit going to a man behind the scenes in those Thunderbird TV shows. Scenes showing Morlar’s parents death, the aeroplane crash and that of the film climax where a cathedral collapses now seem stagey and clunky.
These scenes like those in Avalanche where the polystyrene made props upstaged the actors. Yet, these scenes still seem more realistic than some CGI ones from today. But the aeroplane crash now spookily prophetic.
However, all this adds up to a film that wouldn’t look out-of-place in that Omen trilogy. With Burton at its helm following those Omen trilogy leading men Gregory Peck, William Holden and Sam Neill. This could be a chilling conclusion to the franchise.
It’s a worthy addition to those headlining actors in so good they’re bad movies from this decade. Like Medusa turns you to stone, these films similar in that you will be as still as a statue stunned by these Oscar-worthy performances that you won’t move from your seat until the final credits show.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 /10
Hulk Rating: /10
The So Bad it’s Good Blogathon 2019, No 8
This review was added to Taking Up Room’s So Bad its Good Blogathon. Other reviews with this cast include Richard Burton in The Fall Guy, Where Eagles Dare and in my recent blogathon about him, CLICK HERE. Gordon Jackson stars in Madam Sin. He also starred with Michael Hordern in Anne of the Thousand Days. Michael Hordern also stars in Yellowbeard and The Slipper and The Rose. Lee Remick stars in The Omen.