Today we’re taking on a popularly disparaged film that actually fails to live down to its reputation by any means. While far from perfect and even a bit flaccid, there’s still enough of interest here to pique the attention of the average cult film fan.
Commonly percieved as a financial flop and failed creative endeavor from the date of its release back in the halcyon days of 1980 (a year that still held its own as one of the glory days of horror, which would only begin a long decline into oblivion after the wildly prolific high water mark of the genre in 1981), The Awakening is in no way deserving of the critical and popular scorn rained upon it over the intervening years.
Tapping into the same period zeitgeist that delivered the Omen and the Exorcist, though leaning far more towards the former in style and tone, the film concerns the still-fashionable milieu of the archaeological dig plagued by the curses of those long dead. With the first major US exhibition of King Tutankhamen’s remains and riches only 2 or 3 years past, Tut fever ran high – Steve Martin’s novelty hit (rather dubiously) in his honor topped the charts only a year or so prior, and the popular interest in Egyptology, mummies and the mysteries of history was still very much in the fore.
Based loosely on Bram Stoker’s Jewel with the Seven Stars, the same material had been earlier (and while still flawed, markedly better) adapted by Hammer as Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, with wide eyed ingeneue Valerie Leon in the titular role.
A cross between a standard mummy film (with the whole tomb exploration marked by an ancient curse angle) and a demonic possession opus (with the gradual and increasing influence over not only outside events, but two of the three main characters, until it closes on a final and irrevocable samadhi and atavism in the final reel), the film is both intriguing in conception and flat in execution – perhaps the vehemence directed at it througout the years rises more from the variation between what was promised and what is actually delivered than its own standalone merits as a filmic work.
Without resorting to a recitation of the entire plot, suffice to say that Heston unearths the tomb of “the nameless evil queen” Kara, who was stricken from the records of history out of fear of her magickal prophecy to return to the land of the living, when the seven stars align, and “a man from the north” comes under her dominion to perform the sacred ritual to accomplish same. Omen style, weird events happen both on the site and back at home in England, culminating in that dreaded final scene predicted…
Unlikely science fiction standby Charlton Heston, right wing star of such politically left leaning dystopias as Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and the Omega Man had seen his star fall into decline as the 70’s wore on, increasingly relegated to big budget disaster films peopled by legions of his fellow “formerly famous” before being tapped for this project, his first and (barring the later Crucifer of Blood, only) horror effort.
Graying and aging noticeably, his formerly hard for the era shirtless frame had begun to show the ravages of time, with his tanned chest giving way to wrinkles, silver hair and the dawn of man breasts, and his face festooned with a nasty, grizzled old beard appropriate to the distracted singlemindedness of his character here, but looking a million miles from his heartier days in SF history. Regardless, he does what he can with a part more suited to a sicklier, Lovecraftian figure – the sort Ralph Bates was known for or Jeffrey Combs would come to specialize in.
Suzanna York (Superman I-II) makes little or no impression here as Heston’s compatriot and, it is assumed, eventual mistress, and despite the occasional interjection by one person or another, this is ultimately a three person show – Heston, York and the all important dual role of Kara and Heston’s daughter Margaret, who we’re about to discuss.
Unfortunately, and this is one of the major problems with the production in a nutshell: Stefanie Zimbalist, while pretty enough, is neither fiery nor sultry enough to carry the demands of the role. The similarly aged and even more ubiquitous at the time Jenny Agutter would have taken this role with sensuality and panache, and really made it her own.
Zimbalist, whether taken by comparison or on her own somewhat meager merits, comes off as rather prim, failing to deliver to any real degree on either the incest angle (the most we get is a rather chaste kiss in Kara’s tomb – I’ve seen far more disturbing material in cheery 30’s and 40’s comedies aimed at middle-America, where daughters look after their single fathers in a very wifely manner, and sons and daughters routinely refer to their parents as “darling” or “sweetheart”!) or the hatred and patricide angle (she pulls this off a little more believably, though if pulling a few faces and mildly fiery glares is the worst she can deliver, apparently the wrath of Stefanie Zimbalist is nothing to be greatly afeared of). In other words, this is hardly Jess Franco’s Eugenie de Sade or even Damiano Damiani’s twisted Amityville II: the Possession, folks.
That duly noted, this lack of passion and fire in a role that demands a plethora of same is unsurprising, given her father Efrem Zimbalist Jr., a television actor best known for his lengthy foray into religiosity and biblical scholarship throughout the 70’s and 80’s. It’s somewhat akin to casting Marie Osmond in the role, during the same time period.
A British/US coproduction, the film lacks the Italianate backing and input that made its most direct and obvious inspiration the Omen so watchable. Further, in true Hollywood style, given the amount of money that was obviously sunk into the film, the suits that govern these projects stuck with what they always assume to everyone’s detriment to be a “safe bet” – casting a “name” director with a few “hits” under his belt, despite having little or no affinity towards or comprehension of the genre, it’s stylistic flourishes, or in fact what actually makes these sort of pictures work.
What’s truly amazing about this is that we aren’t even referring to a director of big budget films this time, but a man who distinguished himself in a string of TV movies, like the Man in the Iron Mask and Baa Baa Black Sheep, and who would eventually go on to his biggest claim to fame by introducing Hugh Grant to the world in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Under the helm of a Dino DiLaurentis, Fabrizio de Angelis or Ovidio Assonitis, this could have been a bombastic, sexy, gore soaked thriller. Even under the likes of Hammer driving force Michael Carreras or British cult film fave Pete Walker, all the loose ends could have come together in a way The Awakening intends, but ultimately fails to accomplish: delivering in a cohesive, entertaining little package the atmosphere, chills and pushing the borders of taboo that this loose knit, almost random succession of slow moving events cannot. And as such, we are left with a somewhat overlong mainstream slab of blah enlivened vaguely by tantalizing hints at the glories that might have been, with a little more focus, the right people at the helm, and a lot more creative freedom.
Yet another offering held back to the very end of the lifecycle of the medium so the only option is an overpriced home-grade DVD-R burn from Warner Archives, this is the sort of film that would have greatly benefited from some loving extras, interviews with surviving cast and crew members, or even as part of a multi-film set with other, somehow related films, like the majors were known for during the heyday of DVD. Picked up for under $10 or in a set of similar films for $20 or less at a brick and mortar store, this would seem like a real find, an archeological discovery of celluloid history unfairly maligned and long left for dead and forgotten memory. As it is, it really can’t lay claim to any of that, and comes off as an interesting end of the list sort of purchase: you’ve gotten everything you really wanted, so this one might tempt you too, if they’re holding a good enough sale that week.
In sum, I offer The Awakening to you with a guarded recommendation, with the caveat that in this case, I appeal solely to the converted, those whose voracious appetite for British horror and/or Omen ripoffs surpasses their better judgment and umbrage at essentially being let down by the disparity between great promise and dull reality.