15 December 2008

Movie Review: The Mummy’s Hand

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
Directed by Christy Cabanne. Starring Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Wallace Ford, George Zucco, Cecil Kellaway, Tom Tyler

The Mummy’s Hand was made eight years after the original Universal Mummy, but the cinematic time-gap between them is far larger. The Karl Freund Mummy was a film of the atmospheric early sound era. The Mummy’s Hand is a robust B-picture of the slick studio ‘40s, done with a “kitchen-sink” approach mixing comedy, romance, and adventure to fill out a double-bill. The Universal Pictures that had made the first film in 1932 died in 1936 when the Laemmles lost control of the studio. The new owners ceased production on horror films until 1939, when the success of Son of Frankenstein ushered in the second wave of Universal classic monsters, one dominated by actor Lon Chaney Jr. and director Frank Waggner. It was under this new system, the well-oiled production machine, that The Mummy’s Hand was made.

(You can always tell immediately if you’re in the post-Laemmle era by the Universal logo. The plane flying around the globe gets replaced by a stunning art deco glass ball, glittering stars, and heroic fanfare by Jimmy McHugh to create the coolest old studio logo of all time.)

The film isn’t a sequel to the 1932 movie, and instead created a new undead Egyptian, Prince Kharis, to fill the title role. Although the first film is superior in every way, The Mummy’s Hand had a greater influence on the popular perception of the character: the lurching, silent killer swaddled head-to-toe in cloth wrappings. The Hammer Mummy is essentially a re-make of this film with elements of its sequel, The Mummy’s Tomb, tossed in.

So it doesn’t reach the heights of the Karloff classic, but is The Mummy’s Hand worth watching? Yes. The second era of Universal Horrors never matched the first’s artistic heights, but at its best delivers loads of explosive, energetic fun. The Mummy’s Hand has plenty of that fun to go round.

The big Universal name in the cast is George Zucco, a frequent actor in the horror films of the day and best known for playing Moriarty to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. Zucco’s character, the be-fezzed Andoheb, opens our story as he reports to the current High priest of Karnak (Eduardo Cianelli) in a desert cave outside Cairo. Time for the obligatory flashback to Ancient Egypt! It’s an inexpensive flashback, since the story of Kharis looks so much like that of Imhotep that it uses The Mummy’s flashback with actor Tom Tyler replacing Boris Karloff in the close-ups. Kharis tries to resurrect his beloved Princess Ananka by stealing the forbidden tana leaves. For his blasphemy, he’s mummified alive. It’s pretty much the same story that Hammer would repeat in 1959, but with tana leaves instead of the Scroll of Life.

The upshot of all this is that the dying High Priest wants Andoheb to bring Kharis back to life with a supply of the tana leaves to protect Ananka’s tomb. Don’t give him too much, the priest warns, or Kharis will turn into an uncontrollable monster. This sounds like foreshadowing, but Kharis actually never gets the full dose—only threatens to. He’s kill-crazy enough as it is once Andoheb gets him up.

Our fast-talking Caucasian heroes enter the story. Steve Banning (Dick Foran), fired from the Scripps Museum in New York, is wandering around Egypt looking for a find to bolster his career. His comic sidekick is chattering Babe (Wallace Ford), on whom viewers will wish a gruesome death more than once. (In vain, I’m afraid). A vase purchased in a Cairo bazaar gives Banning a map to Ananka’s tomb, but he and elder Egyptologist Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) unfortunately seek advice about their discovery from Professor . . . Andoheb! Andoheb tries to discourage them from seeking for the tomb and denies them funding from the Museum of Cairo. Banning looks for dough to get an expedition going, and stumbles upon a doddering magician, Mr. Solvani (Cecil Kellaway), who agrees to put down the money.

The eruption of a massive bar-fight while Banning is making the deal with Solvani shows exactly what kind of film we’re watching: not really horror, but a swinging high adventure. It’s the same style that would guide the 1999 Mummy. The constant magic gags from Solvani get rapidly tiresome, as does Ford’s Brooklynite mugging, but the rapid-fire comedy and fast-talking sidekicks are typical for studio product from the era and deliver a certain charm . . . and they’re still much funnier than the equivalents in the 1999 version.

The expedition sets out for the Hills of the Seven Jackals to find Ananka’s tomb, and Solvani’s daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) comes along to make sure that Banning isn’t trying to pull a swindle on her father . . . and, of course, to give Banning a romantic foil.

The expedition locates the cave tomb, but Andoheb resurrects Kharis and sends him on a killing spree to slaughter all the intruders in the desert valley. Tyler doesn’t offer much as Kharis except his physical stature, but he really only needs to lumber around. The mummy attacks are directed with plenty of excitement to compensate, and the finale has the sort of energy and pacing you would expect from a Republic serial. The climax occurs in an impressive temple set, but the film got it second-hand from a James Whale jungle film made the same year, Green Hell.

Director Christy Cabanne had helmed movies since 1911, and by the time of The Mummy’s Hand he was principally doing B-pictures for Poverty Row studios. This remains his best-known film, and he paces it well, as you might expect from an old studio hand. There isn’t much vision here, but vision wasn’t what the script called for in the first place.

The cast has all-around good zip and zing, with Wallace Ford having a bit too much. But Zucco owns the film. He was one of the decade’s great villainous actors, and he’s a far more interesting a monster than Tyler’s remote-controlled Kharis. Zucco probably would have made the perfect Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the James Bond series if he had lived at the right time. Zucco’s only mistake is letting the comic relief get the drop on him in the finale. Come on, Zucco, you’re better than that.

And who is this Tyler guy who got the title role? Glad you asked. Go see Stagecoach, if for some reason you haven’t already. Tyler plays Luke Plummer, the man waiting in Lordsberg for the showdown with John Wayne. He also took on the role of the first superhero ever to make it to the silver screen, Captain Marvel, in the eponymous classic movie serial—the best of its kind. Tyler was an extremely busy lead in B-Westerns during the 1930s and ‘40s (go look at his IMDb profile if you don’t believe me), and played in Republic’s “Three Mesquiteers” films. After Stagecoach and Captain Marvel, his single turn as the Mummy is his best-known part, although I can’t say he does anything memorable in the bandages. It must have been an interesting break from Westerns, however.

When the Kharis mummy returned two years later in The Mummy’s Tomb, Tyler would be gone and Universal would move their best-known horror actor into the part. But that’s next week; you can’t make me watch more than one mummy movie a week without a tana-leaf infusion.