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Richard Burton, Slow Burn Nihilism, and ‘The Medusa Touch’

He killed his nanny, his parents, his wife, and hundreds of others… and he’s just getting started.
The Medusa Touch
By  · Published on February 22nd, 2020

Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime…

“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”

Very few would argue that the late, great Richard Burton was one of the finest actors of his time. That said, quite a few would probably argue that Burton’s output through the 70s revealed him to be a man in serious decline due to years of alcohol abuse. It’s clear in his performances and decreasing screen time, but I’d still happily go to bat for 70s films like The Wild Geese (1978), Equus (1977), and yes, even The Klansman (1974). The decade saw him taking all manner of roles including one in the ill-conceived Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), but as much as that rare foray into the genre damaged his already faltering reputation he happily agreed to one more horror film — 1978’s The Medusa Touch.

What’s it about?

John Morlar (Burton) sits in front of his television watching as a manned mission to the moon heads toward tragedy. Someone enters his apartment and proceeds to smash John’s head repeatedly with a heavy object. Police arrive on the scene of the murder and begin their investigation only to reel in shock when the corpse — well, what they believed to be a corpse — begins to breathe again. John’s rushed to the hospital and doctors immediately put the unconscious man on life support even as they marvel at the persistence of his still functioning brain.

While doctors ponder how he’s still alive, Detective-Inspector Brunel (Lino Ventura) is knee deep into investigating the attempted murder. He speaks with neighbors, former co-workers, and John’s psychiatrist, Dr. Zonfeld (Lee Remick), and the picture they paint is of a disturbed man who believed himself capable of causing immense harm merely by thinking it. Suspicious fires, car accidents, heart attacks, suicides, and worse are recounted through flashback, and as John lies unconscious in the hospital Brunel begins to suspect there’s still one more disaster yet to come.

What makes it sublime?

Movies about telekinesis were all the rage in the 70s with genre efforts like Psychic Killer (1975), Carrie (1976), and The Fury (1978) entertaining moviegoers nationwide, but The Medusa Touch has a different kind of feel to it. The film is less interested in traditional thrills and chills and instead unfolds as a mystery of sorts. The immediate question is who tried to kill John, and while audiences will probably reach a conclusion before the detective does the journey to the truth still manages to intrigue. (In Brunel’s defense, he’s a French detective working in the UK as part of an exchange program — at least that’s the script’s excuse while the real reason is that the film’s French co-financiers required a star of their own.) The bigger question, though, and the one the film plays more successfully at, is whether or not John’s terrible gift is even real.

The flashbacks we see involve John recounting his own truths, but how reliable of a narrator is he? He claims to have envisioned various things only to have them come true — he saw his school dormitory ablaze before a fire actually started and killed an abusive teacher, he pictures his parents being pushed over a cliff before their car’s brakes mysteriously release and run the couple to their death, he verbally instructs an obnoxious woman to off herself mere moments before she jumps to her own end. But is he seeing the future or causing it? Or is he simply embellishing false memories after true tragedy in order to take on the guilt and blame?

Director Jack Gold (Aces High, 1976) and writer John Briley (Gandhi, 1982) pose these questions without easy answers for most of the film. Is John a real threat or simply mad? The question is sold further through interactions with both Zonfeld and Brunel as their own disbelief is challenged in unexpected ways. John, though, is the one who ultimately convinces that it might just be both — he may have this power and he may be mad. “Why is it always destructive?” he asks of himself and his ability, and the pain on Burton’s face shows a man at true odds with himself.

His question is just as easily posed towards humanity itself, and John seems to be doing just that. For all our power, why is it so often used as a destructive force against others and the earth we live on? Brunel discovers journals in John’s apartment collecting clippings of tragedies large and small going back years, and he marvels at the unnecessary pain of it all. “When you see it all collected like this,” he says, “you realize how much disaster we live with.” We’ve arguably grown numb to the horror, and it’s only gotten worse as 24-hour news cycles see yesterday’s tragedies fade quickly as new ones take the stage.

The Medusa Touch is a slow burn horror thriller about a man who sees only the worst in people — and that includes himself. It’s a glorious downer of a tale that’s lacking a traditional monster, and instead it gives viewers a “villain” whose central motivation is more than a little difficult to argue with. He rails against the artificial glory of the church at the expense of the hungry, he slams a legal system more interested in punishing thought than corralling true crimes against others, and he makes clear his disdain for the cruel and the rude. John is essentially a template of sorts for the big bads in films like 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and 2015’s unfairly maligned Tomorrowland, as he sees people themselves as the authors of humanity’s destruction. He’s punishing them on a grand scale, and like Death Wish‘s (1974) Paul Kersey with a longer reach he’s “found a way to do god’s dirty work for him.”

Burton actually plays third wheel here if you go by screen time, and the obvious realization that it’s some unnamed stand-in lying in the hospital bed through all of those scenes sees his time reduced even more. Still, though, the film would undoubtedly be a lesser watch without Burton’s involvement, and even as a glorified supporting player here his presence carries the movie. The scenes he’s in are intense and often unnerving — Gold takes great advantage of the actor’s haunting, grey/green eyes as a nod towards the Medusa of the title — and when he’s not on the screen the other characters are talking about him. He’s an interesting character given real power by Burton’s tortured performance as a man who despises people but still desperately wishes he could leave them alone.

The scene where John finally proves himself to an onlooker is a truly effective set-piece that frightens even before taking today’s connotations to 9/11 into account, and it works beautifully to set up a ticking clock of sorts in the third act. The use of miniatures might feel dated, but the ensuing carnage is grimly thrilling all the same as people are forced to consider deadly options and actions of their own. It’s cerebral horror, for better or worse, as the dialogue is every bit as powerful and lasting as the imagery of destruction and terror.

And in conclusion…

No one really talks about The Medusa Touch, and I’m not entirely sure why. It made little noise upon release in April of 1978, and Roger Ebert labeling it “the worst movie” of the year certainly didn’t help, but that guy’s been wrong plenty of times before. (And not that it matters, but the worst movie of 1978 is Irving Rapper’s Born Again.) It’s definitely a far more sedate entry in the telekinesis sub-genre, but its power builds throughout to a suspenseful, satisfying, and pretty fantastic finale unafraid to go dark. Add it to your queue, look into Burton’s eyes, and then just try to look away.

Want more sublime Prime finds? Of course you do.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.