Saturday, November 14, 2015

#219: The Awakening (Mike Newell, 1980)

It feels a bit strange to write a post about a silly horror film after last night's horrible tragedy in Paris. I can't say anything about it that is not inadequate and banal and unhelpful and inconsequential, but here I go anyway. We're a violent and destructive species, and we will be until we finally exhaust ourselves into extinction and let the world balance itself again. Some of us are capable of  extending tiny pleasures and kindnesses to each other, though, and there is a quiet dignity and grace in getting through our largely inconsequential lives with a minimum of damage to others. I may be no great shakes as a human, but I spend my days trying to make my wife and my cats happy and trying to make reasonably decent music with my friends and trying to write fun stuff for people who share my interests and trying to spend as much time listening to, watching, reading, looking at, eating, and experiencing the creative things some of my fellow humans have made when they were at their least crappy instead of spending my days mired in violence and greed and hate. Sometimes I fail at all these things, but I try. If that's what you're doing, too, thank you, and if that's what you're not doing, fuck you. Life is sad enough. Stop making it sadder.
In the spirit of getting on with it, let's talk about Mike Newell's 1980 horror film, The Awakening. I can't wholeheartedly recommend this film to a modern, general audience, but it's a fascinating period piece with some gorgeous cinematography, and I think film buffs will get a kick out of it. It has a very old-fashioned vibe (even by 1980 standards), for good and ill, and a lot of heavy hitters behind the camera. Unavailable for years, the film is now on DVD as a part of the bare-bones, mail-order Warner Archives series in a beautiful, widescreen reproduction. (Another great reason to support your local video stores. Netflix doesn't carry this series, but most existing independent video stores have a ton of them.)
Based on the Bram Stoker novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, The Awakening is about famed Egyptologist Matthew Corbeck (Charlton Heston) and his erstwhile assistant Jane Turner (Susannah York) searching for the tomb of an obscure Egyptian queen whose history has been scrubbed from the Egyptian records due to her murderous rage and overall scariness. Corbeck has been obsessed with this quest for years, much to the chagrin of his pregnant, neglected wife Anne (Jill Townsend). It's hard to tell whether Heston is supposed to be American or British in the film, but really, every character Heston plays is from the country of CHUCK HESTON, so that's very much where he's playing this character.
Matthew and Jane eventually find the queen and her tomb, which coincides with the premature birth of his daughter Margaret. Of course, Matthew misses the birth, and his fed-up wife takes the baby and splits as soon as she recovers. Matthew and his find are the hit of Egypt, and his obsession with the queen only increases, even as people in his orbit start dying mysteriously and gruesomely. The film then jumps ahead 18 years. Matthew is a professor in England and has left his family for his assistant Jane. His wife and daughter live in the United States. Margaret is 18 now and has grown up to become a pre-Remington Steele Stephanie Zimbalist, and she gets the urge to visit her absentee father in England.
Though they haven't seen each other in years, they connect immediately and creepily obsess over each other and the queen. When Matthew gets the news that there has been some damage to the queen's corpse due to a fungus or virus, he and Margaret go to Egypt and then bring the queen back to England for restoration. Lots of people die mysteriously, Matthew gets even more obsessively bonkers, and Margaret starts believing she's the reincarnated queen.
The Awakening has a very deliberate, slow pace that gradually accumulates in detail (except for the final third, where it's a little too obvious that some scenes have been cut for time and important details have been excised). This approach to storytelling was on its last legs in Hollywood productions at the time, and it's an approach I miss. The Awakening drags a bit, but overall, the slower pace creates an atmosphere and mood that fits the film well. Heston's hamminess works here. The story is silly but not ridiculous, and the tone is serious but not deathly self-important, and Heston never slides too far into campy self-parody while at the same time his scenery chewing keeps the film from being overly precious and pretentious.
On the negative side, the film is also old-fashioned when it comes to male/female relationships. Though the film is full of women characters, they are all fairly one-dimensional and are given only as much as they need to illuminate Matthew's character. They are defined by their relationships to him, not by their own personalities. Still, Matthew gets his comeuppance in the pretty awesome and pretty silly final scene.
The Awakening was the first feature film by British director Mike Newell, who up to that point had been an almost 20-year veteran of British television. He's had a pretty interesting career since in both the American and UK film industries. Newell is one of the last of the master craftsmen for hire in the Michael Curtiz mold, and his credits include such disparate films as Bad Blood, The Good Father, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, An Awfully Big Adventure, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The film's real star, though, is cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The guy is a wizard with light, and the golden sun and deserts of Egypt, the interiors of museums, and the vegetation and cityscapes of England are all captured beautifully by him. Cardiff had a long, distinguished career that included a fruitful collaboration with Powell & Pressburger on Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes, and his other credits include Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The African Queen, The Barefoot Contessa, Under Capricorn, Ghost Story, Conan the Destroyer, Cat's Eye, and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Even the ridiculous movies looked good when he photographed them.   

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