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43. The Awakening (1980), dir. Mike Newell

Borrowed recently from Lovefilm, and watched last night as a treat after a heavy day of Lib Dem Christmas card delivery.

We must have taped this off the telly some time in my early teens, as I clearly remember having a copy of it in the family house, really liking it and watching it quite regularly on boring Sunday afternoons. I hadn't seen it since I left home though (and heck knows what's happened to the taped copy), so I borrowed it to see whether it was as good as I remember. It was!

The story is based on Bram Stoker's novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars, which I must confess I have never read. Wikipedia gives good plot summaries of both, though, so I won't bother repeating either, but will simply link for those who are interested:Judging from those, the essential elements of the stories are pretty similar, but The Awakening updates everything to the present day, and puts more emphasis on the personal and psychological troubles of the Egyptologist who unearths the mummy - his marital problems, his career obsessions, his weird relationship with the teenage daughter he has barely ever seen. And there is no doubt at all about what has happened to both Kara (the mummified princess) and Margaret (his daughter) at the end.

Wikipedia also tells me, in what is clearly a rather contested Reception section, that this film is apparently widely considered rather dull. Indeed, others seem to agree. It's a fascinating phenomenon, this one - you grow up with a film in the pre-internet age, form your own opinion of it, perhaps with input from one single review (my Horror Bible thinks it's great!), and only discover years later that you are utterly out of step with the majority consensus. But in this case I really cannot understand what the people who claim this film is boring are on about. From where I'm sitting, Charlton Heston does a great job as Corbeck, the lead Egyptologist, conveying very effectively the range from his buoyant exuberance when he first makes the find of a life-time to his increasingly-unhinged vulnerability as he begins to realise where it is leading him. And the plot builds just nicely from a straightforwardly-realistic depiction of an Egyptological dig at the beginning, through a series of strange and unsettling events which reflect the parallel development of Corbeck's unhealthy obsession with his find, and via a sequence of inventive and memorable deaths to a poignant ending in which he just has time to witness his own illusions shattering before meeting his own horrible fate. There is a strong sense of inevitability as the events march towards their terrible climax, and yet always tension too as we are given reasons to hope that the characters will manage to overcome the ancient evil and escape their fates.

Watching it now, what I really liked about it was its central concern with academic obsession, and the terribly damaging effect it can have on the person experiencing it and on those around them. I can definitely relate to that. In fact, in many ways Corbeck's character arc reminds me quite strongly of Stourley Kracklite's in Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect, another film of which I am extremely fond. Both characters are obsessed with a little-known historical figure whom no-one else really cares about (Kara, Boulée), both have marital problems, both lose control of their big research projects, both put up undignified fights to get them back, both lose all sense of proportion in the process, both are aware of their own impending doom and helpless in the face of it, and both essentially end up causing their own deaths. It's just that in The Awakening, the drama and tension of this arc is manifested partly via supernatural happenings.

Obviously when I originally saw this as a teenager, I couldn't have related quite so profoundly to the academic-obsession theme, but I was of course already very geeky. I had definitely spent more than my due portion of hours shut away in my bedroom, reading about Egyptian mythology. So I think even then I would have found something that spoke to me in Corbeck's obsession with an ancient Egyptian princess, and his half-hope, half-fear that he might be able to bring her back to life. Certainly, I remember being very much taken by the climactic scene in which he carries out the resurrection ritual, at the end of which he breaks open the mummy's jaw so that she can 'breathe' again, only to first realise to his horror that the magic was all an illusion and all he has done is irreparably damage his precious find, and then realise to his even greater horror that the ritual has in fact worked, but not in the way he had imagined - Kara has indeed come back to life, but in the body of his daughter. This part, of course, is a classic 'be careful what you wish for' story - rather like The Monkey's Paw, for example.

Meanwhile, this is a surprisingly big-budget film for a British horror movie. Even the nay-sayers seem willing to concede that its sets and location footage, including extensive scenes set in actual Egypt, are superb, and the camera crew certainly get good value out of them. The early scenes on the dig are infused with a powerful sense of the close heat of the Egyptian desert - another aspect which had really stuck with me since I last saw this film as a teenager. There is some clever editing work going on as well, usually to suggest terrifying and supernatural things without actually showing them. For example, when Corbeck first finds Kara's tomb, the sounds of his hammer-blows as he opens the outer seal reverberate along the valley, where they are cross-cut with scenes of his wife back at the camp experiencing simultaneous spasms as she goes into a premature labour with their child. This is just enough to suggest, without actually stating, that there is a profound connection between the dead Egyptian princess and the new-born baby - just the right level to leave that suggestion on at this stage of the story, so that it can develop more fully and horrifyingly later on.

I will concede that the young lady who plays Corbeck's daughter, Stephanie Zimbalist, puts in a pretty unexciting performance - but even then, maybe that's only appropriate to the story, given that she is meant to be 18 years old and basically just a cipher waiting to be possessed by an evil Egyptian princess. It's probably a good thing the film ends just as that possession takes full hold, because I'm not sure Zimbalist could have carried full-on evil very convincingly. Other than that, though, I really can't see how or why this film deserves such mediocre ratings on the various review aggregator websites. That said, I note that many of the negative reviews (e.g. this one) draw their unfavourable comparisons specifically with Hammer's earlier take on the same Stoker novel, Blood From The Mummy's Tomb, and I won't dismiss that part of what they say. So it's onto the Lovefilm list with Hammer's effort, for future viewing and a comparison of my own.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 22nd, 2014 01:36 pm (UTC)
Stephanie Zimbalist whaaaaaaaaaaat! Remington Steele was my favourite show as a kid!

Dec. 22nd, 2014 02:41 pm (UTC)
I've never seen a single second of it, I'm afraid! It's probably available in the UK now, and might even have been broadcast here at the time, but it totally passed me by anyway. Still, if you like her in it, that sounds like a good reason to check out her earlier work in The Awakening, and tell me what you think.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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