The Medusa Touch (Special Edition) Review
"I am the man with the power to create catastrophe!" It could well have been something that Lord Lew Grade might have said looking at his film career, which not only included The Medusa Touch but also Raise The Titanic, but it wasn't. Rolling around in Richard Burton’s commanding voice, it is instead spoken by his character, John Morlar, who utters it in between his railing at the various ills of the day and who surely terrified millions of children who, along with The Omen, Asylum and the occasional episode of Hammer House Of Horror, were allowed to watch The Medusa Touch for some pre-bedtime chills. Even now, the sight of Morlar’s hand scribbling WINDSCALE on a piece of paper as his heart monitor beeps in the background gives this viewer the chills, much as the sight Gregory Peck looking wild-eyed and on the verge of stabbing his son to death also does. But then again, The Omen never warns you of the dire consequences there may be for not checking if one’s hand brake is on before enjoying a walk along the cliffs on the southern English shore.
As John Morlar, Burton opens the film watching news footage on his television, when an unidentified figure approaches him and bashes him over the back of the head. Leaving the scene, the killer leaves Morlar on the edge of death and untouched until the police arrive the next morning. However, showing much less regard for the actual corpse than would future generations of scene-of-crime squads, the detectives and beat coppers do, for the majority of their time in Morlar’s house, simply step over and around the body as though it were a particularly obtrusive coffee table. Until, that is, Inspector Brunel (Lino Ventura) determines that the crime scene is secure, whereupon Morlar’s body is seen breathing. Whisked away to a hospital and under the care of Doctor Johnson (Gordon Jackson), Brunel begins, piece-by-piece, to build a picture of Morlar’s life and who might have wanted to kill him.
Somewhat handily, Morlar kept a diary and in amongst his bleak thoughts on life is a name, Zonfeld. Digging a little further, Brunel finds that Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick) is a psychiatrist who had Morlar on her books as a patient. Slowly and against her natural resistance to Brunel's questions, Zonfeld begins to describe her sessions with Morlar and what she believed was a terrifying power to create disaster. The death of Morlar's parents on a trip to the south coast was only the beginning and was soon followed by the burning down of his school. The driving of a woman to throw herself out of a window was yet more evidence of Morlar's power but Zonfeld remains sceptical. Until, that is, he causes an airliner to crash into a tower block and Zonfeld realises, as she listens to him rant about causing ever greater disasters, that he must be stopped...
The Medusa Touch is a British film. In fact, it’s a very British film and bears as much similarity to the big-budget Hollywood disaster movie as a Morris Marina does to a Ford Thunderbird. Instead of Charlton Heston drawing a somewhat precarious line in the shifting Californian landscape in Earthquake, Gene Hackman picking a fight with God in The Poseidon Adventure or Steve McQueen as a fireman in The Towering Inferno, The Medusa Touch offers us a French copper on a work exchange programme. It offers us the grim sight of London in the seventies when even the bright sunlight is made dull by trenchcoats and the heavy brown of suits that were then fashionable. But then it also has Lee Remick and Richard Burton saying some preposterous things and glowering at one another in such a manner as could have been laughable but which is wholly entertaining.
Many unkind things have been written and said over the years about The Medusa Touch. However, I suspect that many will have looked upon this DVD release as something of a guilty pleasure in which one can enjoy several episodes of grand disaster set about a police investigation that is sometimes plodding and sometimes very funny, even intentionally so. That it's a British film is indisputable, even in looking past the peculiar fashions of the era. Where such disaster movies as those mentioned earlier build upon chaos with yet more buildings being toppled, character actors being killed and ever bigger explosions, The Medusa Touch does not, preferring to punctuate its police business with suitably disastrous moments. That isn't to say that The Medusa Touch doesn't have some particular aces up its sleeve for, after a slow beginning, it hits something of a stride, never more so than when Morlar downs an airliner in a foreshadowing of the events of 11 September.
What is particularly effective about this is how enjoyable this is as well as often being very grim. Much of it might well be cinematic shorthand - Michael Hordern shows up as a palm reader who's terrified at taking hold of Morlar's hand whilst Derek Jacobi is a camp literary agent who mutters some dreadful hokum about Morlar's state of mind - but the film is fascinated at what he's capable of. And so too is the audience, seeing a villain who's prepared to use telekinesis on a grand scale. Carrie may well ruin her own prom night and Jean Grey might show herself capable of moving objects from afar but Morlar brings down an airliner, the navigator of which vainly crosses himself as he approaches certain death. Refusing to rest there, Morlar crushes a cathedral onto the heads of the dignitaries within before turning his attention to a nuclear reactor. Best of all, he simply refuses to die, showing a persistence that seems to rest on willpower alone, which leaves Gordon Jackson looking spectacularly confused as even without life support, Morlar clings on to life and continues his calling down of disasters.
It's rare that films have as strong a villain as Morlar, rarer still when said villain spends a good deal of the film in a coma and wrapped in bandages. As the film rumbles around the destruction of the abbey, Morlar becomes a character who's not only worth celebrating but is also worth rooting for, moreso as the bricks and mortars collapse on the heads of various VIPs. Sometimes chaos is worth pursuing and the makers of The Medusa Touch understand that, making it clear that there's more fun to be had with it than in a routine police investigation, which, as the film proceeds, tends towards the background. Perhaps it isn't a very good film but it is a memorable one and whilst, personally and for a long time, it never served as much more than a stepping stone into horror, it's a surprisingly potent one on this release.
Anamorphically transferred, Network haven't done a bad job in cleaning up this print for this Special Edition. Comparing it to the trailer that they have included as an extra, the main feature looks very good indeed with very little damage to the print, an impressive amount of detail and a palette that's probably fairly representative of how the film looked on its original release. It's worth saying that The Medusa Touch doesn't look particularly good - anyone who's seen one of its late-night showings will testify to that - but Network have done a good job with what there is, producing a set that is more than acceptable.
The audio track, on the other hand, is fairly nondescript but it's likely that we should look upon that as favourable, there being nothing that can be drawn out as being a problem. On the plus side, the audio track is as well-restored as the image with there being only a little background noise and the separation between the dialogue and audio effects is obviously very good but there are few moments that really stand out. However, it is worth noting that like most Network releases, The Medusa Touch is not subtitled.
Audio Commentary: I would imagine that this is going to be the most attractive extra on the set and features writers Stephen Jones and Kim Newman and director Jack Gold chatting for the length of the film, from its first seconds to the very end of the credits. Jones and Newman are enthusiastic supporters of The Medusa Touch and are happy to point out many of its best moments to a director who never sounds entirely sure about his film. However, after ninety minutes of listening to them praise much of his work, even Gold admits, "I'm beginning to think this is quite well made!" and they conclude on good terms, with an obvious fondness for the film and with an entertaining commentary.
Destroying The Abbey (18m16s): Subtitled Behind The Scenes, this features some candid footage from the shoot in the Cathedral of the crew, of the extras sitting nervously and of various clapperboards being snapped shut. Happily, we do get to see some of the extras being knocked to the ground by enormous pieces of foam but with others being put into place by the crew, there is a sense of before-and-after shots in this feature. However, more than anything else, this does suggest that being on a film set is an extraordinarily dull place to be. It's worth noting that there is a long silence towards the end of this feature so if you find yourself prodding the DVD player in the hope of getting some sound out of it, don't worry.
Finally, there is a Trailer (2m44s) from the time of the film's theatrical release and an Image Gallery (1m00s).
This is further proof, as well as their sterling efforts with Space: 1999 and The Champions, that when Network put their collected minds to making a DVD release a very special one, they do themselves proud. With a very good transfer of the material and a very decent set of bonus material, this is a fine DVD release of a film that many will remember from it being lost in late-night screenings and, in a post-11 September climate, equally lost in the vaults. It may not be amongst the very best horror thrillers but it has a particular charm and it may be time for The Medusa Touch to be celebrated, even if it's only on the margins.