Awakening of the Beast Review
Since its discovery in 1943 by Dr Albert Hoffman, lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD as it is more commonly known, has enjoyed an interesting relationship with cinema. Films as diverse as Roger Corman’s The Trip (long banned in the UK) and the animated Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine have been influenced either wholly or in part by the drug. However, neither one matched the 1969 Brazilian offering entitled Awakening of the Beast for sheer bizarreness. Indeed, to find something akin to the unbelievable weirdness on display, one need look at one of the industry’s stranger anecdotes; the fact that Cary Grant willingly participated in experiments to discover the effects of LSD.
Sadly, Awakening of the Beast, for all its oddball charms, doesn’t have a narrative to compete with the fascinating implications of that meeting between Hollywood glamour and psychedelic intoxication, consisting as it does of a series of tableaux depicting the dangers of drug addiction. This is not to say that we are being offered a hippy-era Reefer Madness; whilst the film takes a less than salutary stance against substance abuse, it still manages to wallow with wholehearted pleasure in depictions of sexual perversions. To whet the appetites of anyone who is intrigued, these include the bizarre juxtaposition of cocaine, a horse and a bored housewife; plus the untimely death of a young girl courtesy of a pre-Evil Dead rape by tree.
Once the interest in what is occurring on-screen wears off, it becomes readily apparent that Awakening of the Beast isn’t actually a film about drugs at all; rather it is entirely devoted to its creator, Jose Mojica Marins. Certainly, there is some justification in this. Marins had become something of a media celebrity owing to his two previous cinematic ventures which had introduced the world to the character of Coffin Joe – portrayed by Marins himself – and he had become a regular fixture of Brazilian talk shows, as well as finding himself immortalised in comic book form. The problem this creates is that whilst Marins may be, in many ways, the ideal person to make a film about himself, he is sadly too poor a director to pull it off. This is especially disappointing considering that Awakening of the Beast toys with some intriguing ideas, in particular a postmodernist attitude that pre-figures by 15 years Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Sadly, Marins doesn’t have the cinematic talent to utilise them in a remotely interesting way. Indeed, what pleasures can be garnered from the film are often more to do with what’s wrong with it than what’s right.
As such, the comparison of Marins’ film to those of Edward D. Wood Jr. seems entirely appropriate. Wood’s 1952 curiosity Glen or Glenda also sees its director confront a ‘shocking’ subject in autobiographical terms by inserting the filmmaker into one of its self-proclaimed ‘case studies’, as well as being fairly awful in general cinematic terms. It should be said, however, that Wood’s film possesses a naïve charm which makes it far more rewarding than Awakening of the Beast. More to the point, both directors have been treated in a far superior manner in films outside of their command; Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is fast approaching modern classic status and the 2000 documentary The Weird World of Coffin Joe manages to better any of the films in Marins wayward output. Anyone at all interested in the Brazilian director would be well advised to seek out this work before they even consider approaching Awakening of the Beast.
Despite the low quality of the film itself, it is pleasing to see that Mondo Macabre have offered us a decent disc. The original 1.55:1 aspect ratio is adhered to (non-anamorphic, though this is hardly a problem) as is the original Portuguese soundtrack. The latter is monoaural with optional English subtitles. Admittedly, the picture quality is not great, especially during the garish colour sequence – most of the film is shot in black and white – and the sound often comes across as a little too tinny. This fault is most noticeable whenever any music is played.
The extras, though sparse, are pretty good. The notes on Marins include a number of production stills and are very informative. Better still is the 23 minute ‘Eurotika’ documentary (screened on Channel 4) which trumps the notes by virtue of featuring interviews with Marins himself. While not as fulfilling as The Weird World of Coffin Joe - sadly not included – it is nonetheless a welcome addition.