Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Medusa Touch (Jack Gold, 1978)

Wonderfully overwrought slice of 1970s British supernatural horror, with a fine cast, grand central conceit and the courage and conviction to see things through to the very end, in a most grisy, satisfying fashion.

John Morlar (played with bitter relish by the late Richard Burton) is a man who in his own words has "the power to create catastrophe." He can will things to happen; cause disease and disaster at a whim, and end the lives of anyone who wrongs him. Is his power telekinesis? Demonic possession? An incredible series of coincedences?

The film opens with Morlar's attempted murder at the hands of an unknown assailant. As his attack is investigated, by Inspector Brunel, played by Lino Ventura as a kind of anti-Clouseau, the inspector's investigations lead him to Morlar's journals, and then to his psychiatrist and slowly he begins to understand the precise magnitude of the events unfolding around him.

With Morlar hospitalised throughout, his character is explored through a series of flashback sequences, acting out the anecdotes one by one as Brunel discovers them. This dual-story structure is undeniably clunky and amateurish, but at the same time does the job. Little 11 year-old Morlar is just as frightening as his middle-aged counterpart.

It also becomes clear that the script was written largely as a means to have the redoubtable Richard Burton utter an increasingly bitter series of savage monologues in that fantastic, gravelly portentous voice of his. That said, these speeches are the undoubted high point of the film; venomous, furious tirades against humanity, a sweaty, eye-rolling tour de force from the man in question. His short-lived stint as a defence lawyer, which sees him launch into a floridly impassioned rant against war and man's love of war is unabashedly hilarious.

By the time Brunel realises the truth, at around the same time that the audience realises, the film has jumped, feet-first into a ludicrously overblown, but at the same time incredibly satisfying and anarchic climax. Who doesn't enjoy the thought of the queen, members of parliament and heads of the church all being crushed to death under a collapsing cathedral?

Other delights to be savoured throughout include the destruction of London's Centre Point Tower, a failed American Moon mission and one of the most realistic, chilling suicide scenes ever filmed.

The film's cheap feel, and drab, corduroy '70s ambience adds no end to the atmosphere of underlying dread, and a brilliantly bleak denouement (that cries out for a sequel, which fortunately, never came) is the icing on the cake. Well worth seeing for fans of quirky British horror.

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