“I am the man with the power to create catastrophe…..”
Some people will never understand true greatness, even though they think they do. Self-appointed arbiters, tastemakers and naysayers (all of whom believe their word should be taken as gospel) are everywhere- particularly in the field of cinematic criticism-and probably have been since day one. Two of the things they love to sneer at, for some obscure reason best-known only to them, are British films and horror films: put them together to make “British Horror Films” and you’re really whistling up a gum tree. True, the recent years have seen a re-evaluation of several strands of Brit cult film, including many exploitation titles and b-pictures, and it’s now generally accepted that The Wicker Man is a classic. One genre picture in over 110 years- oh, ye denizens of Crouch End and Dalston, how magnanimous of you.
But the rest of the time, it’s business as usual. The greatest films made in the last 40 years are Scorsese’s gangster pictures, right? And the best films ever made are Citizen Kane, or if you want to be incredibly post-modern and ironic, Star Wars. Of course they are. And Richard Burton’s greatest, most iconic performances were in his Shakespearean, historical epics of the early 60s. Serious , proper films for serious, proper people. And nothing he ever did afterwards was a good. Right?
WRONG!!!! One hundred per cent wrong, totally brimming with incorrectitude in every way. Those films will always be great, but for a whole generation of us, and to anyone who truly understands his psyche, the great Welshman’s true flowering only came from 1967 onwards when he finally dropped the veil and plunged headlong into the genre he had previously written extensively of loathing- the horror film. Over the next eleven years he would deliver several performances in and around the macabre idiom, beginning with Dr Faustus, moving stylishly across the oceans with Bluebeard and Hammersmith Is Out, and eventually climaxing in a 20-month run across 1977 and 1978 that got off to a false start with Exorcist II: The Heretic, put one foot outside the genre parameters but kept the other in with the “serious” but still horrific Equus, climbed back up to speed with Absolution, and finally exploded across our screens with the panoramic terror of The Medusa Touch. Yet still the doubters refuse to bestow upon it the status it deserves, even within contextual criticism of the genre it belongs to, and continue to list it as one of “the films Burton should never have made”.
Presumably these are the same people, or at least descendants of, who believe Olivier should never have made The Entertainer, and spent the rest of his life “playing the Dane” instead. Presumably they also didn’t care a year or two after the release of this picture, when Margaret Thatcher, in her attempt to encourage “healthy competition”, abolished the Eady Levy and effectively put the kaibosh on 90 percent of homegrown production. If so, then sorry, but it’s their loss, because it really is that good. Maybe its very subject matter– the outsider, the perpetual observer, who can see through the thinly-veiled lie of our everyday comings and goings for the artifice they are- explains why I relate to it where some others can’t, and maybe such things are a little too close to the bone for the chattering classes. The difference between myself and Burton’s character, curmudgeonly novelist John Morlar, is that he realises at a certain age he can do something about this, whether he wants to or not (initially he doesn’t, but as time wears on he acknowledges and grudgingly accepts his gift as a rare power) via the medium of telekinesis. Or put simply, if people annoy, upset or betray him in any way, he looks at them and makes them die- whereas the rest of us have to make do with strongly-worded letters (emails in this day and age) or the occasional doughboy ‘rahnd the lugowl.
This premise therefore sets us up for a multitude of possibilities- and in a big budget production which probably spent the half of the British film industry’s coffers that Ridley Scott hadn’t already earmarked for Alien in one go, no expense seems to have been spared to show us how many possible ways to create catastrophe, or disaster, there are. Airborne spaceship disasters, crumbling cathedrals, nuclear plants and plane crashes, the latter depicted in one particularly graphic scene involving a jumbo plummeting into the side of a tall office building (I wonder why this hasn’t been on the telly in the last 10 years? They used to show it so often…) are all either shown or hinted at here, and as Lino Ventura’s warm, likeable and incredibly human French Exchange police inspector Brunel says when looking through Burton’s scrapbooks, “it’s only when you see it gathered together like this that you realise how much of it there is” The question posed by the film, though, and indeed by Peter Van Greenway (no, not Peter Greenaway, although he’s often unfairly maligned too) in his original novel, is what if one man were to find he was indirectly responsible for half these occurrences?
As the film begins with Morlar’s attempted murder by an unknown assailant- rendering him physically insensible due to a battered skull but still capable, whilst wired to a life support system in hospital, of all kinds of psychological evil- logic dictates that the story will be told in a series of flashbacks, first via his psychologist Zonfeld (Lee Remick) who relates the writer’s confessions second-hand to Brunel, but also via practically everyone else (Derek Jacobi, Alan Badel, Robert Lang) that had ever come into contact with him. Employing a style which detractors have lambasted (unfairly) as a mere series of set-pieces acting in themselves as an excuse to show off the appearance of yet another guest star, Remick explains that while most people visit therapists because the world has become too much for them, Burton visited her because he felt “he was too much for the world”.
This belief seems to have been initiated at a young age when his nanny (Frances Tomelty) and his parents (Norman Bird and Jennifer Jayne) died in mysterious circumstances: later, it is further reinforced via the burning of his school, his stillborn child, the death of his first wife(Marie Christine Barrault) and her lover (Jeremy Brett) in a car accident, the mysterious asphyxiation of a judge (Robert Flemyng) who ridiculed Morlar in a court he appeared in as barrister, and the strange circumstances that subsequently befell the defendant (James Hazeldine) both in and out of prison. Soon, however, the focus shifts to “outward” incidents, happenings which on the surface reflect nothing of the author’s personal life or have anything directly to do with him, but which still represent his attitude to the world, and it becomes obvious to three previously sceptical policemen (Ventura, Michael Byrne and Harry Andrews) and a harassed hospital surgeon (Gordon Jackson) that something beyond their ken might be going on after all.
All of which admittedly makes The Medusa Touch a ridiculously far-fetched concept when compared to Equus (based on a true story scriptwriter Peter Shaffer read in the news) and Absolution (the very earthbound tale of a repressed Catholic schoolboy’s rejection by his peers and subsequent descent into murder), but equally renders it no less enjoyable, commendable or palatable. Burton’s appearances are brief at first, giving the viewer occasion to question his “star” status, but soon grow, not only in length but in breadth and texture, into something far more substantial, his declamatory speeches, anecdotes and diatribes each bearing the mark not of the lunatic but the truly perceptive man who has had quite enough. After all, we all have our breaking point, and who is to say where the line may or may not be drawn? Normally we would place such a trust in the law, but when the law finds itself, as it does here, slave to a power it cannot possibly control, what then?
Released at a time when, in no small part due to the success of films such as Close Encounters and the aforementioned Star Wars, the question of American and Russian domination in the “space race” was once again rearing its head, the film is extraordinarily prescient: coming also as it did at the tail-end of a decade which had seen the hippie dream replaced by every possible evil from globalisation to Watergate and its subsequent fallout, and the idealism of the love generation replaced by the anguished spit of punk rock (an anguish fully realised when the Tories swept to power a year later) John Briley’s script seems to ask every question going through the British public’s heads within 105 minutes. God knows how he ever got it past the likes of financier Lew Grade (a cigar-chomping capitalist if ever there was one) but then again, we know producers don’t look at scripts anyway. Whether the bleak, infinite nihilism professed by Morlar is any answer is, of course, more of a moot point (and also one raised a year later by Nigel Kneale and Piers Haggard in The Quatermass Conclusion) but Inspector Brunel admits at one stage that he is “learning to admire him more and more every day” and clearly someone was worried enough about his power to attempt to stop it.
The question is, can anyone? Come the end of the picture we’re no surer than we were at the start, but if we can be certain of one thing, it’s that endings like this- bringing together both actors and audience in a shrill, chill moment of realisation- are as iconic as any in the cinematic canon, and the very stuff that the greatest memories, when holding one of “those” conversations with your peer group several years later, are made of, and it’s time the unbelievers recognised it, rather than decrying Burton’s performance as ‘hammy’. There’s absolutely nothing hammy about an open display of the full range of human emotion, from sarcasm (“When you’re not being obvious, I have hopes for you”) and spite (“I mistook you for a woman”) through sheer venom (the incendiary intent to “blow the bloody place (the Imperial War Museum) sky high” and the oft-quoted “the moment they kneel to prey, I will bring the whole edifice down upon their unworthy heads” ) to a moment of reflective sadness and regret (“what I don’t understand is, why it’s always destructive. We find what powers the sun and we make bombs of it….) Morlar’s only articulating what most intelligent men, faced with an ugly world, think on a daily basis- which if anything, in 2011 we probably think more- and Burton, with his unique mixture of perfect diction, fury and restraint, is the ideal man for the job. In retrospect, these qualities would have made him the ideal man for many horror productions- a shame, therefore, that in ensuing years his increasing frailty prevented him from making more of them.
And if Morlar, the anti-everyman, does kill hurtful, evil people without touching them, he’s only doing what millions would probably do were they blessed, or cursed, with the same power. OK, there’s nothing to say he has the right to do that- but there’s nothing to say the government or the police do either. Strange, really, that such a thoughtful piece of work should have originated from the world of big-budget number-crunching, but it just goes to show what can be achieved when one slips under the radar of corporate ignorance. On the other hand, if you simply wish to switch off your brain and enjoy some white-knuckle entertainment, and aren’t particularly concerned with debating the nature of Man and the state of the cosmos, then you will still find plenty here to enjoy- and there aren’t many films you can say work on two such disparate levels. Either way, to my mind Medusa remains the premier British horror title of the late 1970s (possibly only rivalled by Pete Walker’s The Comeback and Norman Warren’s Terror), successfully distilling and juxtaposing all the primary elements of the genre, such as the supernatural, the urban and the rural, suspense, intrigue, conspiracy, sex appeal, great dialogue, atmosphere, fantastic photography and locations, black humour, nods towards science fiction and a blatant admiration for both the Italian giallo and the Hitchcockian McGuffin: all this and a cast to die for, a veritable who’s who of practically everyone ever seen on a British or European screen in the preceding 40 years.
Granted, it does have a few shortcomings- the most obvious one being that despite its theatrical status (apparently, despite the already growing influx of US productions infiltrating the cinemas, it did sterling business), its televisual origins- conceived as a co-project between ITV supremo Grade, a French commercial TV channel and American producer Elliott Kastner- do tend to show through, not least of all in its choice of stock and aspect ratio. Then again, to the likes of me, whose first memories of horror films were episodes of Brian Clemens’ Thriller and Roy Skeggs’ Hammer House Of Horror, ITV Friday night double bills or bank holiday afternoon screenings of family terror fare like At The Earth’s Core or The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad, that’s another plus point- as is the overall lack of blood, gore and viscera. Not that I, with my totally subjective opinions biased by some subconscious desire to return to the safety of childhood (like all horror fans apparently, according to the cineastes) would know anything- after all, don’t forget, we’re all mental…