The Medusa Touch (1977)

Genres - Thriller  |   Sub-Genres - Psychological Thriller  |   Release Date - Apr 14, 1978 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 110 min.  |   Countries - France, United Kingdom, United States  |   MPAA Rating - PG
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Review by Bruce Eder

From the second shot in Jack Gold's The Medusa Touch -- a close-up of a print of Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream," in a study where a man is watching a tragedy unfolding on a lunar mission -- this is one eerie and unsettling movie. From what seems to be a murder scene (but proves to be something much more complicated), we shift across twin landscapes, of multiple disasters spread across the past life of the victim, John Morlar (Richard Burton), and see hints of some recent tragedy and destruction in London. The film unfolds in such a way that the two separate layers of death and disaster, and the threat and paranoia that come with them -- one vertical, out of Morlar's past, and the other horizontal, in the here-and-now as the characters move about London -- intersect for the denouement, which is one of the most exciting and one of the more horrific seen in this kind of movie. Lino Ventura and Lee Remick are coolly credible as two characters on the periphery of Morlar's life, trying to understand what is happening, and it is difficult to imagine an actor other than Richard Burton who could bring the degree of pathos, anger, and dignity that he encompasses within his portrayal of Morlar. The plot resembles an old Outer Limits script entitled "The Man With The Power," which was produced with Donald Pleasence as the tormented possessor of psychokinetic power, but his was a more sad and sympathetic character, even when his subconscious mind was triggering peoples' deaths -- Burton's Morlar evokes a far more complex range of emotions here, including raw fear when, at the denouement, his worst destructive impulses manifest themselves, seemingly without any way of stopping them. The film's believability is helped greatly by the presence in supporting roles of Harry Andrews, Gordon Jackson, and other top British acting talent, and the script's and the director's occasional display of a nasty sense of humor, such as in the flashbacks to Morlar's relationship to his parents and the circumstances of their deaths, and a scene involving a bickering couple arguing over a fish. There is also a decidedly topical, Watergate-era slant given to the plot as the investigating detective is told that his superiors want the assault/attempted murder case wrapped up quickly and quietly, because of Morlar's supposed possession of incriminating facts about government and business leaders -- that elements is almost lost, however, amid the ever heightening destruction depicted in the story as the time-line of Morlar's life advances to the present, and the suspense that comes with it as the nature of Morlar's final plan becomes clear. Thanks to the presence of Lee Remick in the cast and the script's suggestion at one point -- in a frankly delightful scene with Michael Hordern -- of a possible mystical (or demonic) source for Morlar's abilities, The Medusa Touch was compared with The Omen and other horror films of its era depicting demonic manifestations; in fact, it's a better, more rational chiller than The Omen or its sequels, closer in spirit and substance to science fiction of the Quatermass variety, though not remotely as inventive as that esteemed cycle of productions written by Nigel Kneale. Though it was very successful in England, The Medusa Touch never found an audience in America, possibly because its story, images, and characters were too English to capture the imaginations of American filmgoers. The script's explanation of the movie's title -- ironically, one of its numerous strong attributes -- probably didn't help either, being rather vague and rooted as it was in classical mythology rather than more conventional and easily understood notions of demonism and Christian imagery.