Friday, October 22, 2021

We know the limits of nature. We know—or are we just afraid to test the limits of our certainty?


Directed by Mike Newell
Written by Cliff Bryant, Allan Scott, and Clive Exton (based on the novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars by Bram Stoker)

Spoiler alert: moderate

If I were to go out on a limb and call The Awakening something like "one of the most underrated horror films of the 1980s," I should probably first admit that it hits buttons for me that most people don't even have.  I have, in the first instance, a soft spot for ancient Egypt, Egyptology, and whatever the genre of orientalist fiction is called that focuses on pharaonic Egypt and the West's corresponding Egyptomania; and when it comes to classic movie monster types, mummies are my favorite (even if a common complaint about this mummy movie is that its mummy doesn't do anything).  Likewise, I have a downright enormous soft spot for Charlton Heston, so that I will pretty much watch anything he ever starred in and get something positive out of it, and to date that assumption has held up almost 100% of the time.  (There is the matter of The Greatest Show On Earth.)  The Awakening was one of Heston's final starring roles prior to his unfortunate decision to devote himself to political reaction fulltime, and while that doesn't make it important, it's fascinating to watch how his nakedly-emotional acting style remained entirely static across massive shifts in the way actors were "supposed" to act, and I find it comforting that in 1980 Heston was still barking his lines with cosmic anguish and running around the Earth's torrid zones without a shirt on.  (He remains pretty beefy if you're into daddies, as this movie, in fact, hopes you are.)  He also eventually dons a funny fake beard in the second section of the film, as well as some thick coke-bottle nerd glasses (real glasses, I'd say, as they're very shiny, so maybe just Charlton Heston's actual glasses), offering a "scholarly" variant on the physique that had already prototyped Indy in the 50s.

The Awakening was, furthermore, a late-career wonder for another aging legend, but at least when it comes to deified cinematographer Jack Cardiff, I don't have to defend myself against a hostile consensus.  (It also, for example, lets us rest assured that all those reflections careening off Heston's glasses are an entirely intentional gambit, one more carefully-chosen element of any given scene's mood.)  Still, as for the film's direct appeals to my tastes, I know I shouldn't get cross at everybody and declare, "actually, this is the most underrated horror film of the 1980s," just because it uses something like fifty long cross-dissolves as the backbone of its editing scheme.  But, boy, am I ever tempted.

Of course, it's only an accident of the calendar that I need to call The Awakening a "horror film of the 1980s" in the first place, and everything about it cuts against the grain of where horror was heading, from its magisterial pace and emphasis on eerie atmosphere and vague psychological unease at the expense of splatter movie blood and excitement or horror-fantasy movie spectacle or, hell, normal movie plot and character.  Then again, The Shining did pretty well, cross-dissolves and all.  Thus I can't claim that The Awakening arrived too late, as I doubt arriving earlier would have made any difference, but it was plainly financed with an eye towards a continuation of 70s horror trends, with its themes of possession and malign pregnancy and occult rituals bridging the gap between centuriesso, you know, some Rosemary's Baby here, some Exorcist there, and a whole lot of Omen sprinkled liberally throughoutand now with more pagan flavor, suffused with a nostalgia for romantic archaeology undertaken against the timeless backdrop of the Egyptian sands and sun.  (Considering the alliances secured by the film's producers, I don't think the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Museum of Cairo missed that one of the minor things The Awakening is "about" is how a Westerner's obsession with squirrelling away Egyptian artifacts seals his doom.)

But proximate inspirations aside, there's a whiff of something much mustier here, and I mean that in the best wayUniversal horror and Hammer horror, and not just for the subject of Egypt and mummies, but for the source material, Bram Stoker's The Jewel of the Seven Stars, adapted nine years earlier by Hammer in Blood From the Mummy's Tomb.  That's a perfectly rad movie in its own right (The Awakening openly references it twice, including in its final frame), but it's a very different take on the material, not completely unserious, but slightly winking in the way it pursues Stoker's story in a Hammer idiom, so that, for example, it would be very hard and arguably pointless to write about Blood From the Mummy's Tomb without mentioning its mummy's outstanding breasts.  It's also not as good at being horror qua horror: not just "less scary" than The Awakening, though it's that, but there's a sense in Mummy's Tomb that the characters have some command over their fates, and escape could be possible.  In The Awakening, they never had a chance.

We begin in 1961 in the Egyptian desert, where Matthew Corbeck (Heston) is on a dig with his assistant Jane Turner (Sussanah York) pursuing what may only be a legend, the so-called "Nameless Queen," whose existence heretofore has only been guessed at by optimistic inference (but who is not, though I expect her mystery inspired Stoker, the 18th Dynasty's erased female pharaoh Hatshepsut).  Along for the job is Matt's wife, Anne (Jill Townsend), and she's followed him here for no good reason, for she hates it in the Egyptian wilderness and she's heavily pregnant.  Her purpose seems to be to try to remind her husband that she exists and to complain about the affair she's accusing him of having with Jane, this resulting in the first of the film's self-fulfilling prophecies.  Matt almost even manages to care, but he's distracted when he and Jane actually do find the tomb of that short-lived queen, Kara (not a very foreboding or, as far as I can determine, even an attested name, but it suggests someone didn't like Stoker's "Tera," perhaps because it means "Ra's bread").  But in the same instant Matt sledges his way into the tomb, his wife is struck down by some invisible force, sent into a strange open-eyed coma punctuated only by screams, and though Matt speeds her to help in Cairo, he sees he can do nothing, and so he heads back to the desert with the authorities to document his and Jane's find while Anne's child comes out ahead of schedule.  She's born dead; but with the unsealing of Kara's sarcophagus, the infant breathes again.

She'll be named Margaret (presently an upsettingly gross actual baby with some kind of white fluid bubbling out of its mouth; eventually a much less-spit-up-prone Stephanie Zimbalist), and Anne takes the two of them out of Egypt and out of Matt's life for nearly the next two decades.  Margaret, however, is reminded of her father when she receives a present from him on her eighteenth birthdayan ankh-shaped hand-mirror, originally gifted to Matt by the Cairo Museum for his diligenceand they reunite, turning out to share a pronounced fascination with the long-dead Egyptian queen, whose remains have lately arrived in Britain for further preservation work at Matt's insistence.  He didn't have to insist that hard, of course, because every Egyptian in authority who's ever opposed Matt's wishes has come to an untimely and unlikely end.  Nevertheless, they may be the lucky ones: Matt, after all, has read the inscriptions in Kara's tomb that foretell of a man from the north who would serve as her instrument, and despite this knowledge, seems moved by some unholy compulsion to pursue the rituals laid out for him; for her part, whatever killed Margaret and brought her back to life on her first day in the world has remained with her, too, and it's aching to make itself whole again.

This is a sturdy plot to hang a movie on, though the "70s horror ostensibly for adults" angle means, ultimately, a total absence of shambling mummified figures murdering people who should be able to outrun it, and this is kind of a shame, because mummies are the best.  The big silver lining is that it pursues a robust body count anyway, only in the proper fashion of a curse (indeed, in the fashion of The Omen, with shades of Final Destination) by contriving scenarios for various short-lived members of the supporting cast, and eventually members of the principal cast, to "accidentally" eat it in reasonably brutal ways, and for the most part I'd heartily agree with its makers' apparent feeling that this should have been enough to maintain any normal horror audience's interest.  It is, however, a lot better at killing people during the first half of the film than it is in the second: at a certain point, The Awakening retreats into some aggressive chintzmagical artifacts associated with the queen that manifest her evil in the world mostly by way of how the cast pretends to be terrified of immobile statuettesand in this instance, The Awakening maybe arrived too early.  Lost in the transition between decades, it's easy to imagine how much it would've benefited from the more ambitious special effects that weren't quite part of the horror-fantasy landscape yet, but would be as soon as the next couple of years.

Well, it's not a perfectly-executed plot, and the later kill scenes come in concert with all its other problems, as the film starts trying to get a handle on the subtleties of Margaret's connection with Kara, and starts stumbling through scenes that presumably want to be character-driven, but arrive more as a pell-mell of disordered beats that, at best, feel like leftovers, and at times feel like completely new scenes done by another creative team.  The Awakening was Mike Newell's feature directorial debut, and, for reasons that don't have all that much to do with the quality of his work, he's more-or-less disowned it, not least because it was taken away from him and re-cut.  Not much could be done to make it a more conventional movie, however, and it's fairly obvious nobody should've tried: there's a persistent feeling as we bob and weave through Margaret's encroaching psychosis and the hash it makes of Zimbalist's performance that The Awakening should either be quite a bit longer, or else even shorter than its reduced 101 minutes already are, because there is approximately zero value in, e.g., Margaret going to a psychiatrist (Ian McDiarmid, of all people, whose butthead prosthetic in The Phantom Menace was arguably more dignified than his actual hair is here) who's in and out of this movie in one scene.  Meanwhile, the second act as a whole had previously staked a simply enormous amount of its sense of creeping disquiet on the incestuous provocations of Kara-in-Margaret's-body.  Weird, nervy stuff, and in its very lewdness involving the most interesting aspects of Zimbalist's performance, I won't say it doesn't "pay off," but, confusingly (and rather suspiciously), The Awakening forgets that this was its central character dynamic the very instant that dynamic makes itself undeniable.

For all that, it still works, and whatever damage the producers did to Newell's movie, they must've been flummoxed at trying to "fix" it completely, and that's a hell of a good thing.  I do not attribute much of this to Newell, as such, as both a first-time filmmaker and somebody whose history with horror (or even just this particular brand of artsiness) begins and ends with this film, unless you're counting Harry Potter as "horror."  But he had the luck to be surrounded by ancient master craftspeople who had very clear designs on what they wanted.  This number absolutely includes Heston, whose performance is the one most in-tune with the film's goals, less good at "creating a character" whose ambiguous free will makes him a little hard to pin down, anyway, than he is at providing a succession of emotional states rendered in painterly poses that serve as the anchor for the film's imagery.  But there is that imagery: just for starters, there's the location shooting in Egypt, grounding the fantasy in a very tangible place, somehow both a heightened vision of Egypt as a mythical land of deserts and sunsets, mummies and minarets, and extraordinarily tangible in the precise complexion of these deserts, these sunsets, these mummies, these minarets.  (Outside of Kara's grave, itself very good, Michael Stringer's production design is largely satisfied to block out the interiors of Egyptian museums in spooky ways and to find the Egyptian exteriors with the most evocative geological and archaeological features.  Though he does later find a gloomy English cemetery, for a nice compare-and-contrast.)  It's also tangibly hot: the cast spends the first act of the movie soaked in sweat, even indoors.

There is an abstracted, hazy quality to the photography throughout, but it's a paranoid vision, Cardiff (and, if you must, Newell) electing to shoot either through obstructions or from far away, only reluctantly surrendering the point-of-view of some all-seeing, all-encompassing presence that's been here forever and is now slowly coiling around our heroes, all scrambling blindly in the dust.  He's joined in this effort by editor Terry Rawlings, who almost threatens to make it his movie, building scenes out of surprisingly long takes, individual shots often chosen more for their impact than for storytelling efficiency, and always emphasizing the hole in time that Matt's unearthed, insisting feverishly on the simultaneity of events, ranging from the dreaminess of those long dissolves that allow scenes to co-exist on the screen for half a minute at a time to the nightmarish quality of some of his cross-cutting and sound design (and Rawlings was, by trade, also a sound editor, a position The Awakening does not seem to have otherwise filled).  The linkage of Matt's discovery of Kara's tomb and the attack upon his wife's unborn child is terrifyingly intense, despite being (or because!) it's nothing else besides pure cinema.

Even so, Cardiff (himself a veteran director, incidentally) can't help but be the film's star: I can't find precise confirmation of this, probably because nobody gives a shit (I can't even find good illustrative screenshots), but the film credits Technicolor as its color processor, and I'm almost sure it was one of the final "real" Technicolor films (most famously Suspiria) done at the last European dye transfer plant in Rome.  And of course Cardiff knew Technicolor: this is the Cardiff you read encomiums about, and I like his work here at least as much as anything he ever did with Powell & Pressburger in his period of best-acknowledged greatness; I mean, I enjoy his 80s stuff, but this is a photographic masterpiece on par with Black Narcissus or A Matter of Life and Death.  Besides everything else great about itthe tactility, the eerinessCardiff turns The Awakening into an exercise in color, very often making shots about two competing planes of strangely-hued solid colors, and frequently this is just to establish atmosphere and visual identity (sometimes, certainly, it's purely for the sake of its own prettiness), but often enough and striking like lightning when it comes, it's charged with emotional conflict that tells the story better than the acting, dialogue, or plot does.  And Cardiff and Rawlings's imagery is always ably assisted by Claude Boller's terrific score, ranging from romantic orientalist adventure epic to anxious horror and everywhere in between.

But I don't want to imply it has no story.  Ultimately, it winds its way into one very smart twist ending that involves some of the more interesting aspects of Egyptian metaphysics (astoundingly, the film seems to simply assume that you know the Egyptian conception of existence comes in components more multifaceted than a body/soul dichotomy; it isn't expert-level, perhaps, and somebody decided Stoker's seven stars are just the Big Dipper, and orients them in a way that means "meat offering" rather than "divine power," but hey, that still kind-of works).  But it's never more intelligent than when it betrays the assumption that if our tragic hero's precious science is not the foundation of this film's world, then it must be the ancient Egyptian religion as we know it through pop Egyptology that's the truth.  The shock comes when we finally realize what's been staring us in the face the whole moviethat Kara was special because she'd acquired powers of resurrection not already laid out for any literate Egyptian to read in the Book of the Dead, and discovered the secret behind the ultimate desecration.  The film's suggestion that we don't even know what we don't know is the stuff of the best intellectual horror; and the way the bottom drops out in The Awakening's final scene, whereupon the film just stops, leaving us with nothing besides a sense of bleak comprehension, is simply great horror, period.

Score: 9/10

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