Old-Time Religion

The Mummy: adapted by John Balderston from a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer; directed by Karl Freund; starring Boris Karloff (Imhotep) and Zita Johann (Helen Grosvenor) (1932): The first Universal Frankenstein movie had made Boris Karloff a big enough star by the time The Mummy was released that the legend ‘Karloff!’ dominated the posters. And Karloff and the set design are really the stars here — Karloff’s co-stars are a terribly forgettable lot. I’ve forgotten them already.

Of course, Karloff only appears in full mummy regalia for a couple minutes. For the rest of it, he’s sinister but human-looking as the resurrected Egyptian priest Imhotep, mummified alive for the crime of loving the Pharoah’s daughter. But you can’t keep a good monster down.

Inspired by stories of the Curse of King Tut’s Tomb, The Mummy sends Karloff on a tour of vengeance and love, as he seeks the reincarnation of his lost love. Yes, reincarnation. Not something the Ancient Egyptians were known for believing in, but what the Hell. Who can tell Hinduism from Egyptian mythology? You might as well just worship Hawkman!

Karloff is great as Imhotep. In one of his first full speaking roles as a horror star, Karloff seems to intuitively understand something that a lot of early sound actors did not: Less is More on the big screen. He has that great Grinch Karloff voice, and he knows how to use it — for the most part, insinuatingly, softly. His movements are slow and patient, befitting a 3700-year-old man-mummy. Every time I see Karloff in a movie, major or slight, I’m again impressed by what a natural-seeming, finely tuned screen actor he was. I can pretty much happily watch him in anything. Recommended.

Philomena: adapted by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope from the book by Martin Sixsmith; directed by Stephen Frears; starring Judi Dench (Philomena), Steve Coogan (Martin Sixsmith), Michelle Fairley (Sally Mitchell), and Anna Maxwell Martin (Jane) (2013): Steve Coogan shines again in a road trip movie, this one teaming his writer/reporter character with Judi Dench’s eponymous Philomena as they embark on a mostly true story of lost children and Irish Roman Catholicism.

50 years before the main, early 21st-century events of the movie, young Philomena gave birth out-of-wedlock to a son. At the time, she was a prisoner in all but name of a Roman Catholic girls’ reformatory run by nuns. In exchange for laborious work, the girls — many of them in their early teens and pretty much all of them sent to the reformatory by relatives ashamed of their pregnancies — got room, board, and one hour a day with their children. And then the children were put up for adoption.

Director Stephen Frears depicts the horrors of the past with a deft touch. He also uses identifiably ‘old’ media to depict many of Philomena’s memories and conjectures about things she never witnessed: washed-out tones of old photos, 8 mm home movies, washed-out home video. The present sees the unlikely pair of grouchy, atheistic lapsed Catholic Coogan and (almost) perennially cheerful Philomena strive to discover what happened to Philomena’s son. The former reformatory is politely non-commital. And lo, all the papers indicating the destinations of the adopted children burned in a mysterious fire!

The writing, partially by Coogan, is a delight. Both characters are right in their own ways at certain times — Philomena may scold Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith for his anger and cynicism, but it’s that anger that gets the answers to certain questions. And the actions of the reformatory and its inheritors are absolutely dire and loathsome. Philomena’s apologies for the actions of the Roman Catholic hierarchy wear a bit thin at times, but are nonetheless depicted as being an essential component of the more admirable facets of her character. Dench is a delight. Coogan is a delight. Maybe they should add Philomena to Coogan’s next The Trip movie. Highly recommended.

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