The Awakening (1980) poster

The Awakening (1980)


USA/UK. 1980.


Director – Mike Newell, Screenplay – Chris Bryant, Clive Exton & Allan Scott, Based on the Novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars by Bram Stoker, Producer – Robert Solo, Photography – Jack Cardiff, Music – Claude Bolling, Special Effects – John Stears, Makeup – George Frost, Production Design – Michael Stringer. Production Company – Solofilm/Orion/EMI/British Lion.


Charlton Heston (Matthew Corbeck), Stephanie Zimbalist (Margaret Corbeck), Susannah York (Jane Turner), Jill Townsend (Anne Corbeck), Patrick Drury (Paul Whittier)


Archaeologist Matthew Corbeck is obsessed with finding and opening the tomb of the Ancient Egyptian Queen Kara, even to the neglect of his pregnant wife Anne as she delivers their baby daughter. Eighteen years later, Corbeck’s daughter Margaret comes to Egypt to meet her father for the first time. Once there however, Margaret realises that Corbeck is attempting a ritual that will revive Kara and that occult forces are killing all who oppose this predestined plan.

The Awakening was the fourth screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel The Jewel of Seven Stars (1917). It had been preceded by an earlier adaptation as an episode of the British anthology series Mystery and Imagination (1966-70); Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971), an adaptation from Hammer Films; as well as a later B-budget version Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy (1997).

The Awakening has a reputation as a dud. It has an obvious debt of inspiration to The Omen (1976) with its series of sensationalistic showcase supernatural killings of all who stand in the way of predestined evil. Despite this, The Awakening is better than one had been led to believe.

No expense has been spared to make the film look good. The production values are top-notch – lavish photography and sets, a lush score. Magnificent use is made of real Egyptian locations and there are some extraordinarily convincing recreations of the tomb and antiquities. The degree of authenticity is fortified by the impressive list of museums, universities and Egyptian ministries that the film credits for their help – notedly these appear even before the film’s title or names of the stars. The Awakening feels like this is the first real mummy film – indeed, it probably is the first mummy film to actually be shot in Egypt.

Charlton Heston as archaeologist Matthew Corbeck in The Awakening (1980)
Charlton Heston goes tomb raiding as archaeologist Matthew Corbeck

The plot, to anyone who has seen any mummy films, holds no particular surprises in terms of working out that Kara will reincarnate in the body of Stephanie Zimbalist. The fact that this is construed as the plot’s big surprise – despite an inordinate number of clues dropped throughout – is a big anti-climax. The film feels structured wrong as a story – most mummy films get this possession aspect out of the way early in the piece rather than at the climax.

Nevertheless, the film bides the time in between well. The Omen-esque showcase deaths – a victim hung by a winch rope, Ian McDiarmid impaled on a syringe, Susannah York thrown out of a window and then a shard of glass dropped on her neck – seem routinely contrived. However, Mike Newell’s direction holds a number of effective shock images – of the sleeping Charlton Heston being dragged along the floor toward his safe by the manacled safe key on his wrist; a momentary image in the mirror where half of Stephanie Zimbalist’s face seems a mummified map of wrinkled scars.

The opening where the amplified sledgehammer blows of Charlton Heston breaking into the tomb are crosscut with Jill Townsend’s labour pains and the opening of the sarcophagus with the baby’s first breath of life, is a remarkable sequence – one that not only makes a marked connection between the birth of the child and the reincarnation of Queen Kara but which also draws contrast between Heston’s abandonment of his wife over his obsession with Kara.

Stephanie Zimbalist as Corbeck's daughter Margaret possessed by the spirit of Kara in The Awakening (1980)
Stephanie Zimbalist as Corbeck’s daughter Margaret possessed by the spirit of Kara

Elsewhere, Mike Newell fails to quite develop the sexual element lurking underneath, nor the hints of incest and patricide that seem to be doomed to be replayed. The Awakening a decent little film though – if it has any of the faults it is accused of, it is sedate in pace and perhaps a little distant. Charlton Heston’s rather remote delivery is perfect for the role of the absent-minded academic that the film requires, although does not exactly make for sympathetic viewing.

Mike Newell went onto become a highly respected director in the British film industry, making films such as Enchanted April (1992), the enormously popular Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), An Awfully Big Adventure (1995), Donnie Brasco (1997) and Pushing Tin (1999). He has dabbled in genre material on a number of occasions including Bad Blood (1982) about a true-life New Zealand mass murderer; Into the West (1992), a work of Irish magical realism; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005); and the videogame Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010).

Trailer here

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