Friday, 12 September 2014

The Medusa Touch (1978)

I make no apologies for stating at the beginning of this review that I love THE MEDUSA TOUCH. Partly filmed in Bristol, with one of the best and most violent orchestral movie scores ever written (courtesy of Aberystwyth’s own Michael J Lewis) how could I not love a British disaster movie in which Richard Burton pulls a cathedral to pieces with his brain?

Not that it’s a perfect film – in fact, far from it. The main problem is with the screenplay, which requires the movie to open with the savage beating of John Morlar (Burton), thus relegating his brain-damaged character to a hospital bed for the rest of the film, and his acting to flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks). Through these we learn, with the aid of John Briley’s often superbly acidic dialogue, how Burton’s character grew up believing himself to be an individual capable of causing disaster. As a child he kills his parents and causes his school to burn down. As an adult he marries but it doesn't work out – his wife ends up hating him and the child she eventually has is a monster. 

        Exasperated with the decadent endeavours of man, Morlar decides to turn his talents to creating disasters, constantly pushing himself to new heights of carnage. An aeroplane crashes, and a link-up in space fails. Once he is hospitalized, the policeman investigating the case (Lino Ventura) realizes Morlar is still gearing up for his piece-de-resistance to ‘bring the whole shameful edifice’ of ‘Minster Cathedral’ crashing down around the heads of dignitaries due to assemble there.

I’ve not read the Peter van Greenaway novel on which the film is based, and so I can’t testify to how faithful the narrative structure is. I suspect, however, that the script had to pander to both budgetary restraints and the need for highlights to rival the popular disaster movies popular at the time. Consequently, it’s easy to see that all the money went on the aeroplane crash and the destruction of the cathedral at the end, meaning that the rest of the running time is taken up with a disjointed police procedural with star turns from whichever British character actors happened to be around at the time. 

But it’s partly these star turns that keep it interesting, that and the music and the sense of creeping dread it conveys that the entire film is building towards something spectacularly horrible. And when it comes it doesn’t disappoint. THE MEDUSA TOUCH may have a clunky screenplay and underuse Richard Burton (in fact every time I watch this I forget how little he’s in it), but the dialogue is terrific and so is he when he’s allowed to unrestrainedly chew the scenery. The climactic destruction of the cathedral is a triumph of excellent model work, razor-sharp editing, and that fantastic music. In fact it’s so good it makes you immediately forgive and forget any shortcomings the movie may have.
THE MEDUSA TOUCH is presented on Network’s Blu-ray release with an transfer that is, on the whole, sparkling - replace your old DVD release of this now. There’s a commentary track by director Jack Gold with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, and some behind the scenes footage of the ‘Destruction of the Cathedral’ sequence. This goes on a bit but fast forward to the end to see them filming the mayhem. There’s also a trailer and an image gallery.

Network are releasing cathedral-crumbling epic that is THE MEDUSA TOUCH on Blu-ray on 15th September 2014

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