"The Awakening," a horror thriller about the curse of a diabolical mummy, kept me nodding off helplessly in the middle of the day. The cavernous, almost empty auditorium of the Fairfax Circle provided the movie with an abundance of room to die in.
If I were sufficiently superstitious, I might blame the peculiar sedative effect of "The Awakening" on the spirit of Queen Kara, a legendary terror whose tomb is rashly opened by an archaeologist, Charlton Heston. Could it be Kara's idea of a little joke to obliterate the memory of this film from the handful destined to gaze upon it? Maybe she was a more considerate girl than the filmmakers pretend.
"The Awakening" lays the groundwork for minimal dramatic interest by exposing all its cards in the opening sequence.The nature of the curse is so explicit that working it out becomes an exercise in nose-to-the-grindstone exposition rather than a spellbinding, harrowing exploration of a mystery. It's simply a matter of time before the curse is dreadfully confirmed. Director Mike Newell, a recruit from British television, seems to lack both the script and the skill necessary to prevent that time from becoming a tedious burden.
Heston enters as an obsessed explorer, Matthew Corbeck, obviously begging for trouble on the domestic front. Back at camp after another indecisive day of digging in the Valley of the Kings, Corbeck brushes off his unhappy, pregnant wife, Anne (Jill Townsend), in order to talk shop with his embarrassed, trusted assistant, Jane (Susannah York).
Frustrated with the slow going, Corbeck is seen hammering at a whole mountainside in solitary Hestonesque splendor. Soon a trickly avalanche discloses a breakthrough to the eagle eye of his devoted colleague: hieroglyphics pointing the way to the tomb they seek. As a matter of fact, this blabbermouth message reveals more plot than it should: "Do no approach The Nameless One, who must forever remain alone. . . . Beware the man who comes from Under Northern Skies, for he shall release the evil of The Nameless One. . . ." Say no more, indeed!
Not to be denied, the headstrong explorer presses on. Locating the portal of the tomb, he knocks it aside with mighty blows of a sledgehammer. At each contact of sledge with rock, Anne, back at the compound, doubles up with excruciating premature labor pains. Returning from his day of triumph, Corbeck finds his missus sprawled unattended on the bedroom floor.
Corbeck rushes Anne to a hospital in the back of his pickup. But once there, he becomes still more concerned with his archaeological find. He leaves Anne in the care of the hospital staff and returns to the site, eager to unearth exotic treasures. The poor wife is delivered of a premature and apparently dead infant daughter at the same moment her busy husband lifts the sarcophagus of Queen Kara and inadvertently touches her hand, causing the fingers to stir for an instant. An ill wind whooshes through the burial chamber, and back in the delivery room the stillborn babe suddenly begins breathing.
Can there be any doubt that the offspring of the estranged Corbecks is Queen Kara reincarnated? Or that she'll grow up to get even with pop for being so beastly to mom? In case a doubt flickers, the script hastens to extinguish it.
Eighteen years later the daughter, Margaret (Stephanie Zimbalist), residing in America with her mother, feels a strange urge to reconcile with her father, now married to Gal Friday Jane and residing in England. The graven images of Queen Kara make her a dead ringer for Margaret. Moreover, casual dinner table conversation reveals that Kara went on her rampage at the age of 18, her father's incestuous lust having motivated her to slay not only him but also everyone associated with him.
Corbeck is innocent of incest, strictly a red herring in this context, but he pays a heavy price for egocentric careerism, a fairly common weakness among show people. Compromised by its transparent, literal-minded approach to diabolical hokum (the source is an obscure Bram Stoker novel, "Jewel of the Seven Stars"), "The Awakening" is a stillborn melodramatic conception.
For all its obscene outrages, the movie version of "The Exorcist" demonstrated a more astute method of invoking demons for storytelling duty. Although dredged up in the opening sequence, the devil Pazuzu wasn't seen making a beeline for his little victim in Georgetown. And there was room for ambiguous, apprehensive speculation before the mystery of the prologue was resolved during the hair raising climactic sequences. "The Awakening," alas, is suspense-proof.
Charlton Heston's agonized performance may be worth a few ripples of amusement. Returning shaken from the burial chamber, he does a stagger-and-lunge for a whiskey bottle that's a miniature classic of goofy poetry-in-motion. In the role of a scholarly Englishman, he sometimes affects a breathy, lilting accent that sounds like Ronald Colman on the blink. In fact, most of the sound in the movie seems weirdly disembodied, encased in the dead air that usually indicates inferior post-recording. It's another one of the little technicalities that guarantee "The Awakening" a life of eternal cinematic slumber.