Perhaps inspired by the late-70s exhibit of artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb, there seems to have been an early-80s trend for Egyptian-set movies.
The Awakening (1980), a new release from Warner Archive, is an example of the type, where a standard thriller is enlivened through gorgeous scenery of the country. It’s based on a novel by Bram Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars. As this contemporaneous review says, “like Mr. Stoker’s Dracula, [the story] involves a father’s efforts to save his daughter from a supernatural figure determined to possess her.” In this case, it’s a reincarnated, murderous Egyptian queen.
Charlton Heston is an archaeologist seeking to discover the ancient tomb of Queen Kara with his assistant, Jane (Susannah York with a bad blonde pixie cut). Their close work relationship and shared interests upset his pregnant (and grumpy) wife (Jill Townsend). She’s right, of course, that his priority is not his family. When she enters premature labor, he dumps her at the hospital and goes back to work.
As Heston and York open the tomb, the wife has the baby. Every time they progress, the wife screams. This is a horror film, but not the monster kind. Throughout, the emphasis is on psychological frights, particularly the fear of possession, of losing yourself in someone else. I found the idea of being pregnant and alone in a foreign country while your husband runs around the desert with his assistant pretty scary.
The baby is born dead but comes back to life when the mummy’s sarcophagus is opened. Foreshadowing! The wife takes her new daughter and leaves Heston, who’s obsessed with cleaning out the tomb. During a dispute with a government official over ownership of the artifacts, a freakishly accidental death begins the series of disturbing events. Then the film jumps forward 18 years, to when the nearly adult daughter (Stephanie Zimbalist) wants to reconnect with her father. Overall, it’s less The Mummy, more The Omen or The Exorcist mixed with Final Destination.
The Awakening was the first film directed by Mike Newell, who went on to such well-known movies as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He’s very good with suspense, cutting among simple elements to create a feeling of dread and fear. Viewed today, the movie seems to move slowly, since we have much different expectations of filmed entertainment, but it is still effective in creating an apprehensive mood in the audience. The viewer continues wondering what will happen next, knowing it will probably involve someone’s death. Unfortunately, the ending is unsatisfying, stopping (in my opinion) too early.
The movie can be ordered from Warner Archive or Amazon.com. There are no extras on the disc.