Sedate, languid early '80s horror...and not nearly as bad as its reputation. Warner Bros.' own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Archive Collection, that caters to movie fans looking for hard-to-find cult and library titles, has released The Awakening, the 1980 EMI/Orion Pictures Egyptology horror flick based on author Bram Stoker's novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars, starring Charlton Heston, Susannah York, Jill Townsend, and Stephanie Zimbalist. Considered back in 1980 as another nail in the coffin of superstar Heston's headliner career (after a string of underperforming efforts from the star), the derivative-but-glossy The Awakening plays quite well out of that context. As mummy movies go...it's not bad at all. No extras for this good-looking widescreen transfer.
The desert sands of Egypt, 1961. English Professor of Egyptology Matthew Corbeck (Charlton Heston) is leading an archeological dig to try and prove a theory that has obsessed him since he discovered a small notation in an obscure diary of a 17th-century Dutch archeologist: did a royal princess of Egypt named Kara, who was forced to marry her father when he killed her young lover, and who subsequently killed said father and thousands of others, truly exist? Accompanying Corbeck is his pregnant, neglected, and suspicious wife Anne (Jill Townsend), and Corbeck's beautiful, attentive, understanding personal assistant Jane Turner (Susannah York). When strange forces lead Jane and Matthew to the unplundered tomb of Kara, something happens to Anne and her baby when the sarcophagus is finally opened: the baby, born dead, comes alive. Fed up with Matthew's obsession with Kara (...and with Jane), Anne leaves Matthew and takes baby Margaret with her to the States. Flash forward eighteen years. As Matthew obsessively takes custody of the actual Kara mummy when a mysterious decay sets in, Margaret (Stephanie Zimbalist) has an uncontrollable urge to meet her father in England where Matthew, now married to Jane and famous for his discovery of Kara, resides and works at a university. He's delighted by her visit, but a trip together to Egypt leads to an increasingly violent series of deaths, with Matthew, Jane, Anne, and Margaret directly in the line of Kara's fire.
When The Awakening opened here in the States on Halloween, 1980, I don't remember any press associated with it at all―certainly nothing that would indicate a big hit coming. An EMI pick-up from Orion when the fledgling studio needed product fast to fill out its release schedule, The Awakening didn't exactly do boffo box office (that poorly-designed poster art didn't help). But even if it had, the critical daggers were probably already drawn for it, regardless of its actual worth, since it was by then fashionable for reviewers to laugh-off Charlton Heston's headlining efforts, an attitude fueled by mainstream "film" critics―the vast majority of which were, and still are, liberal in their politics―despising Heston for his increasingly conservative viewpoints (by this point those pundits had conveniently forgotten the former moderate Democrat had been a Hollywood pioneer for civil rights in the early '60s). Heston, a bona fide superstar of the 1950s and 1960s, with such high-profile blockbusters as The Greatest Show on Earth, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and El Cid under his belt, had imperceptively begun to slide off the yearly Top Ten box office charts in the mid-'60s with expensive-but-underperforming movies like 55 Days in Peking, The Agony and The Ecstasy, Major Dundee, The War Lord, Khartoum, and Counterpoint. A rare foray (for a star of his magnitude) into science fiction in 1968 yielded one of his biggest hits, the iconic Planet of the Apes, giving the star a new life in fantasy, science fiction, adventure, and disaster genres with hits like The Omega Man, Soylent Green, Skyjacked, The Three Musketeers, Earthquake, Airport '75, and Midway. However, by the mid-70s, with the relative critical and box-office disappointments/failures of genre works like Two-Minute Warning, The Last Hard Men, Crossed Swords, Gray Lady Down, and The Mountain Men, Heston was increasingly seen by critics as an aging star mired in workmanlike vehicles that seemed stuck in another time (which is ironic, of course, because those same reviewers would fall in love with Spielberg's deliberately old-fashioned chapter serial rip-off, Raiders of the Lost Ark, just one year after The Awakening). So what were those critics to make of the star's newest venture: a gussied-up remake of a Hammer mummy picture, of all things?
Even though The Awakening was in fact the third filmed version of Stoker's novel (the 1970 Hammer production, Blood From the Mummy's Tomb from director Seth Holt, would be the most familiar to fans of the genre), I would imagine it was greenlighted in large part because of the recent success of Richard Donner's The Omen and its sequel in 1978 (both of which came about because of the blockbuster hit, The Exorcist, which also featured its own archeological subcontext). Certainly The Awakening apes The Omen in particular, from its series of gory deaths whenever someone either threatens Heston's mission or learns the truth about Princess Kara, right down to an ill-advised scene in a New York zoo, where a hyena reacts with fear when Zimbalist is spotted (lifted directly from The Omen). Derivative though it may be in story construction, The Awakening is first-class in both creative team and production values (including the best in the business in cinematography and editing). With the odd, watery, mysterious opening titles by Bond vet Maurice Binder as a tip-off, no cheap Hammer mummy movie looked this...epic, with gorgeous widescreen location shooting in Egypt, and big, impressive, sumptuous sets that give the movie heft (eclectic Robert Solo, who prior to The Awakening produced the brilliant 1978 remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, could be equally expansive with something like the musical Scrooge, or impressively grungy with something like Ken Russell's The Devils).
Importantly, screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant (Don't Look Now, The Girl From Petrovka, The Spiral Staircase, Joseph Andrews) and Clive Exton (the terrifying Albert Finney remake of Night Must Fall, director Richard Fleischer's 10 Rillington Place, TV's Jeeves and Wooster), and first-time feature film director Mike Newell play The Awakening relatively straight. Newell, who can be all over the map, with genuinely effective, impressive pieces like Dance with a Stranger, Donnie Brasco, and The Good Father, to well-orchestrated popular pieces like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Enchanted April, and of course Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, to out-and-out junk like Pushing Tin, Mona Lisa Smile, and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, keeps The Awakening on an even keel, with no hysterics until the killings begin, bringing to the movie a feeling of somber gravity that's unusual for this particular genre (it helps that the screenplay grounds the action psychologically; everyone is hurting here from failed, frustrated relationships: it isn't just mummies jumping up and strangling people). Instead of the latest state-of-the-art special effects, Newell bucks the then-current trend and sticks with the oldest tricks in the book―sound and lighting effects―to achieve the movie's scares. The Awakening, if you'll pardon, is as quiet as a tomb, until Newell pulls out a sudden, jolting noise to make us jump. In the movie's most disquieting scene, Heston batters away at the tomb door locks to gain entrance, as each "boom" is followed by a cross-cut to his pregnant wife, screaming in agony. When he reaches the trophy room, a shock sound edit of her screaming, along with some odd, unsettling groans, are followed by a terrific shot of Heston, in a completely black frame, isolated in a small square illuminated by his torch (courtesy of master cinematographer Jack Cardiff). These shock edits, from editor Terry Rawlings (who had just finished Alien, and who would go on to Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner), coupled with Newell's funereal tone (which many critics unfortunately took as "boring") help to make The Awakening unusually disconcerting (that shock jump-cut edit, with absolutely no set-up or context for the viewer, of Heston being pulled to his wall safe while Zimbalist pants and heaves, is completely freaked out).
It's just a pity the movie's core couldn't quite sustain this intriguing vision. If you enjoy The Omen-like murders, there are a couple of good ones here (the Egyptian official's neck-snapping fall is particularly nasty, while the syringe death of the doctor is pretty wild), but frankly, they're the least interesting elements of the movie: the early, ominous material in Egypt suggests so much more than the rather routine horror/thriller elements once we're back in England. Heston's obsession with the dead princess drives the story's first act, and we're primed for some further kinky madness when the incest theme keeps getting bandied about, accompanied by dark, unfathomable looks between Heston, York, and Zimbalist. Unfortunately, the filmmakers pull completely back after that weird open-eyes kiss Zimbalist gives Heston; had they delved further into that subtext, The Awakening might have had some uncomfortable juice to it. Perhaps that decision was made after the first rushes came in...because clearly Zimbalist can't pull off "smoldering," at least in this picture (she was just fine, though, as a little tease in the fun TV movie, The Babysitter, driving William Shatter insane with lust). She's not particularly frightening, either, once she "becomes" Princess Kara, so without the promise of sex or violence from the character, her performance seriously undercuts the movie's reason for being. Luckily, fans of Heston can enjoy his rather low-key turn here, pitched just right with his light, perfectly acceptable English accent coming and going on a whim. Looking pretty fit for 58 with his shirt off, Heston's genteel theatricality here gives The Awakening a nostalgic, "classical" feel that's right in tune with the movie's aims: it's just too bad he didn't have an equally compelling performer to battle at the movie's anti-climatic end (although his growling, enraged, "Ooooooooh noooooo....you evil bitch!" is a classic right up with Heston's other noteworthy movie one-liners).
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.