Monday, 28 April 2014

The Awakening (1980)

Bram Stoker’s 1903 mummy novel The Jewel of Seven Stars (which is in many ways a better and more interesting horror novel than his much better-known and more popular Dracula) had been adapted for film with considerable success by Hammer in 1971, as Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. The Awakening, released in 1980, is a very different adaptation of this same novel.

While Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is unashamedly an exploitation horror movie (and a very good one) The Awakening is much more in the style of the big-budget big-studio horror movies of the 70s such as The Exorcist and even more particularly, The Omen. In fact it owes a great deal to The Omen.

Dr Matthew Corbeck (Charlton Heston) is an eminent Egyptologist who has devoted much of his career to the search for the tomb of Queen Kara, the so-called nameless queen. Kara had such an evil reputation that after her death every reference to her was expunged. If any Egyptian tomb is going to be the subject of a curse it is Queen Kara’s. Corbeck and his assistant Jane Turner (Susannah York) have finally discovered the tomb. And, wonder of wonders, it is intact. It has not been defiled by tomb robbers. This may be simply because the secret of the tomb’s location was very well hidden, or it may perhaps be because of Kara’s terrifying reputation.

While Corbeck and Jane are unearthing Kara’s tomb Corbeck’s wife Anne goes into labour. The baby is born dead. Or so it seems. But at the moment that Corbeck lays eyes on the sarcophagus of Kara the baby suddenly starts to cry. She is not dead after all. 

Corbeck’s wife had been insanely jealous of the intimacy between Corbeck and Jane. The movie suggests that her jealousy had no real foundation but be that as it may Anne leaves Corbeck and takes their daughter Margaret with her back to her home in the US.

Eighteen years later Margaret suddenly decides that she must see her father. She sets off to England, despite Anne’s vehement opposition. Corbeck has by this time married Jane. Margaret is about to turn eighteen, which happens to have been Queen Kara’s age at the time of her death.

Corbeck has always been obsessed by Queen Kara but now the obsession threatens to get out of hand. Things become more serious when Corbeck and Margaret visit the tomb and discover the canopic jars containing Kara’s internal organs. These were always removed from the body before mummification and carefully stored.

Corbeck’s obsession increasingly hinges on a forbidden ritual which supposedly has the power to restore Queen Kara to life. Kara had a reputation as a sorceress and she had never intended that her death would be a permanent thing.

Corbeck is a desperately conflicted man. He knows his obsession is dangerous and he fears that Kara is controlling his actions from beyond the grave. Whenever he tries to draw back, or whenever somebody else attempts to hinder his plans to perform the ritual, terrible things happen. People die violently, in accidents that are too convenient for Kara’s purposes to be easily dismissed as mere accidents. Corbeck is losing control of events. Kara may prove to be too strong for him. And possibly too strong for Margaret.

The Awakening performed disappointingly at the box office. The hostility of critics certainly did not help. Much of this hostility was undoubtedly aimed at Charlton Heston. By 1980 his  approach to acting was unfashionable and his politics were even more unfashionable. Critics might have forgiven him for his supposedly dated acting style but they were not going to forgive him for his politics. Actors who insisted on holding dissenting political views were not to be tolerated.

As for his acting, the criticisms leveled at him on that score miss the point entirely. The extravagantly over-the-top theatrically of his acting was a feature, not a bug. It was Heston’s style and he did extremely well and it worked for him. There’s a reason that Heston’s most notable late-career performances were mostly in science fiction, horror and disaster movies. They were the only movies being made at the time that gave him the opportunity to utilise his talents effectively. His performance in The Awakening is spot-on.

The problem is not Heston but rather Stephanie Zimbalist. She is absolutely the wrong actress to play Margaret. She lacks the presence, the charisma and the mystique that the role requires. The hint of an incest theme isn’t developed fully, which is perhaps just as well since it would have been an unnecessary distraction.

While Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb approaches the subject from the standpoint of pure gothic horror The Awakening takes a radically different tack. It attempts to tell the story as psychological horror. This works for the character of Matthew Corbeck, although it works less well in the case of Margaret.

The movie benefits from high production values and from Jack Cardiff’s superb cinematography. There are some good visual set-pieces and some imaginative mayhem including a rather obvious homage to Dario Argento’s Suspiria. 

The Region 4 DVD offers a good if not brilliant transfer without any extras.

Despite its indifferent reputation The Awakening is a fine example of the 1970s big-budget big-studio approach to horror. It’s perhaps a little slow in places and the ending is a little abrupt but on the whole it’s an interesting and rather successful adaptation of Stoker’s very underrated novel. It’s a must-see for Charlton Heston fans like myself. Highly recommended.

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