Friday, June 10, 2011

The Medusa Touch (1978)

          One of the more unusual pictures to appear during the post-Exorcist boom in supernatural horror, The Medusa Touch is an imaginative thriller that quietly builds up a strong head of steam on its way to a genuinely frightening climax. Set in London, the movie begins when someone attacks British writer John Morlar (Richard Burton), leaving him in a coma; visiting French detective Brunel (Lino Ventura) is assigned to investigate. The case immediately seems out of the ordinary because even though Morlar should be dead after the beating he received, his brain activity reflects superhuman stamina. Deepening the intrigue, Brunel meets with Morlar’s psychiatrist, Doctor Zonfeld (Lee Remick), who reveals that Morlar believes himself capable of willing disasters to happen.
          In flashbacks depicting Morlar at different ages, we see him “cause” the deaths of his parents, his classmates at a boarding school, and many others who were unlucky enough to cross his path. As the story progresses, Brunel becomes more and more convinced that Morlar actually does possess otherworldly powers, and that Morlar is planning to cause his most horrific disaster yet because his brain still functions while his body is barely alive. Based on a novel by Peter Van Greenaway, The Medusa Touch is much more than just a creepshow—it’s also a provocative exploration of morality, asking the question of what responsible citizens must do if they become aware of a monster in their midst.
          The cadaverous appearance and contemptuous performance style that Burton possessed later in life suits The Medusa Touch well: Burton looks like a walking incarnation of death. By the end of the movie, just watching him is unnerving, especially when he locks into the deadly stare he uses when “willing” mayhem into being. Ventura, a stocky and weathered Frenchman, offers a terrific complement to Burton’s darkness; he seems vital and humane, though experienced enough to acknowledge the limits of his own understanding. Remick’s chilly beauty adds another interesting flavor to the mix.
          Elaborate pre-CGI special effects come into play toward the end of the picture, and the vaguely surreal quality of the effects accentuates the storyline’s enigmatic quality. So even though The Medusa Touch isn’t particularly subtle, the precision with which the narrative’s various threads are introduced and connected becomes steadily more impressive as the climax approaches, giving the last act real power. So, like all of the most effective movies about supernatural horror, The Medusa Touch is ridiculous when considered from a rational perspective, yet quite engrossing when taken at face value.

The Medusa Touch: GROOVY

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