I have never been a major fan of horror films as a genre but after seeing the 1978 British film ‘The Medusa Touch’ I gained a new respect for them . This isn’t because TMD is a particularly high-standard horror film – in fact it’s rather mediocre. But it’s notable in how it highlighted how difficult it is to make a successful horror film.
The plot concerns French police detective Brunel -in England on an exchange program – investigating the brutal assault of misanthropic-minded novelist John Morlar (Richard Burton), which almost killed him. As Brunel investigates, he discovers Morlar’s disturbing past and his belief that through psychic telekinesis, he has caused the deaths of family and major disasters. The more Brunel investigates, the more credible Morlar’s claims are.
Many of the elements are there for a quality horror film – good cast, script that doesn’t aim for gutter-level cheap thrills – but for all the hard work on display no fear and tension really comes through.
The plot does sound rather absurd as a concept but that seems hardly unusual for horror films. The premise for ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ seemed even more nonsensical but that worked terrifically well. Why doesn’t this?
One of the film’s main problems is how it frames Morlar. For TMD to work it needs to convince us of the concept of this seemingly ordinary man having the power to cause the destruction of humanity, but it fails. This is because of the way Morlar is framed in the film – he’s entirely viewed through the perception of people recounting him through flashback (mainly his psychiatrist played by Lee Remick). This makes him too abstract a concept as a personality so we can’t really get inside his head and understand his motivations to make him really compelling.
This also leads to problems when the film tries to establish how misanthropic Morlar’s worldview is. We see glimpses of it here and there – particularly in a courtroom scene during Morlar’s earlier career as a lawyer (well-acted by Burton) but there’s no real context to it so instead of feeling like a considered worldview which makes his potential for destruction even more terrifying, it adds up to very little.
Surprisingly, for all the mayhem Morlar causes the most interesting character is that of his psychiatrist Zonfeld. Well played by the always appealing Remick, her character is more interesting because whereas Morlar is set out early on and his behaviour is fairly predictable, Zonfeld and her relationship is more of a mystery. The increasing revelations about her help maintain the interest.
For most of the film, TMD does a good job of creating the right atmosphere to make Morlar’s abilities somewhat believable. But it seems to lose its nerve in the latter stages when it goes into specifics in talking about psychics and telekinesis, concepts that were already obvious to the audience. We even have a scene where Brunel watches grainy old footage demonstrating people with the ability to move objects? What’s the point of this? Surely he would’ve known about the concepts already? It seems to be there because the filmmakers lose their nerve and felt they needed to convince the audience some more.
The flashbacks to Morlar’s childhood and previous adult life are a mixed bag. Some (like the killing of his parents) come across as more silly then scary. Others like the destruction of his school in a fire, are more carefully developed to justify Morlar’s source of anger (you’ll rarely find a teacher as loathsome as the one here) so therefore more interesting
The greatest strength of the film is the performances. Despite his star billing as Morlar, Burton’s role actually isn’t that substantial but he does convey an effective amount of menace with his limited character. The real star of the film is Lilo Ventura who is excellent as Brunel and creates a three-dimensional persona of what is a fairly conventionally-written character. Indeed one wishes there were more films based around the adventures of his detective character. The cast is full of quality British acting talent, right down to Jeremy Brett (later famous as Sherlock Holmes on TV) who is excellent ina brief scene.
The script by John Briely (who believe it or not, would write ‘Gandhi’ just a few years later) strives for intellectual significance far above the conventional horror film but isn’t capable of breaking the conventions of the genre, resulting in a conventional climax reliant on special effects and destruction for its impact. Jack Gold’s direction is solid but rather dour.
The film is professionally done all-round and is watchable throughout. But it fails to frighten and excite so therefore it must be considered a failure. If nothing else, it does make one appreciate when a truly frightening and scary horror film does come along – they’re harder to do than they look.