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Awakening, The

Awakening, The(1980)

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Awakening, The (1980)

The horror genre found itself at an odd crossroads at the beginning of the 1980s. The previous two years had seen profound shifts in what audiences would turn out to see, with Hollywood turning out glossy, monster-driven films like Dracula, Prophecy and The Legacy. Meanwhile independents were turning the game upside down like never before, with the burgeoning slasher film wave officially inaugurated with Halloween (1978) and about to explode at the box office again with Friday the 13th (1980).

British company EMI Films, which had gotten its start with a handful of latter-day Hammer films like Scars of Dracula (1970), was gunning hard to become a major international player on the film production scene with expensive, wildly varying productions like The Deep (1977), Convoy, and The Deer Hunter (both 1978). 1980 was shaping up to be its busiest year yet with its Neil Diamond vehicle The Jazz Singer, Times Square, the all-star Agatha Christie whodunit The Mirror Crack'd, and the ill-fated Village People musical Can't Stop the Music all pouring into theaters throughout the year. Then there was The Awakening, the company's return to its horror roots for the first time in a decade, which was mounted in conjunction with a new American company, Orion Pictures. Hot off of a handful of hits in its first full year in 1979 with Blake Edwards' 10 and Monty Python's controversial Life of Brian, and had started off the new year with a bang courtesy of Dressed to Kill.

Finding a project that would continue the wave of revamped classic monsters recently seen in theaters led to the logical choice of The Jewel of the Seven Stars, a 1903 novel written by Bram Stoker, the Irish author most famous for his earlier vampire classic, 1897's Dracula. Riding the vogue for all things ancient Egyptian that would continue to the 1980s, the book follows the havoc unleashed when Margaret, daughter of noted Egyptologist Abel Trelawny, becomes supernaturally affected by the mummy of Queen Tera brought to England by her father. Her potential paramour, barrister Malcolm Ross, must race against time to save her from an uncanny power that could claim her very identity. A devotee of Egyptian culture himself, Stoker was well acquainted with several specialists in the field and spent a great deal of time researching details for his novel.

The book had been adapted to film earlier by another iteration of the same British production company, Anglo-EMI: Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971), one of the better late-period Hammer films despite a rocky time behind the camera including the demise of director Seth Holt during filming and the departure of star Peter Cushing when his wife fell ill. Though the final version plays fast and loose with the novel's plot, it does retain the essentials of Tera's influence on Margaret. A solid, somewhat abbreviated version was also presented earlier in 1970 as "Curse of the Mummy" for the horror anthology series, Mystery and Imagination, and can be seen as one of the six surviving episodes released on British DVD.

The Awakening takes a linear approach to the story with our main archaeologist, Matthew Corbeck (Charlton Heston), and Jane Turner (Susannah York) on a dig in Egypt along with Matthew's wife, Anne (Jill Townsend). The discovery of the tomb of Queen Kara coincides with the turbulent birth of the Corbeck's daughter, who is stillborn until the opening of the tomb itself. Years later, the Corbeck's daughter, Margaret (Stephanie Zimbalist), falls under Kara's sway when the mummy is brought to England, which leads to multiple violent deaths.

The Awakening marked the feature film directorial debut of Mike Newell, a prolific television director of over a decade at that point. Given a significant theatrical release from Warner Bros., the film did little to enhance his reputation at the time; only later would he find his niche as a director of prestige British productions with films like Dance with a Stranger (1985), Enchanted April (1991), and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), as well as a diverse Hollywood career including Donnie Brasco (1997) and Pushing Tin (1999). However, he's perhaps best known to mainstream audiences for helming the fourth Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), which led to the unusual decision to have him helm the big-screen version of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010).

Newell's decision to emphasize suggestion and ambiguity in this film rather than outright sensational thrills, apart from a couple of moments clearly inspired by the success of The Omen (1976), made this film feel like a bit of an outlier when it opened, and Newell never returned to the genre again. However, if you approach it as more of a dreamlike dark fantasy, it's easier to appreciate the contributions of legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, best known for Powell-Pressburger classics like The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Narcissus (1947), and the lush, romantic score by Claude Bolling, also an unexpected choice given his more typical associations with French comedies.

This film spawned a surprising number of imitators and subsequent adaptations, the most immediate coming from Italian director Lucio Fulci with his bizarrely titled Manhattan Baby (1982) which bears several narrative similarities to Newell's film. Elements were also used for Fred Olen Ray's amusing The Tomb (1986), and the Stoker novel was filmed again, more or less, as the very low-budget Legend of the Mummy (1998). Most surprisingly, elements were also incorporated into the Tom Cruise version of The Mummy (2017), which takes far more of its female mummy narrative from this film and its narrative cousins than its actual Universal Pictures namesake. Just like the exotic menace at its narrative heart, the saga of Queen Tera has refused to die for well over a century.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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