22 December 2008

Movie Review: The Mummy’s Tomb

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
Directed by Harold Young. Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Dick Foran, John Hubbard, Elyse Knox, George Zucco, Wallace Ford, Turhan Bey

Two years after The Mummy’s Hand, Universal churned out a direct sequel, uniting some of the surviving cast members (Foran, Ford, Zucco) and placing their new horror feature player, Lon Chaney Jr., beneath the bandages so he could strangle all the people that Prince Kharis missed killing the first time around. Chaney wouldn’t appreciate the gesture much, but it was enough to have the series limp on through two more entries.

Dick Foran, in light “old age” make-up to indicate that enough time has passed for his character Stephen Banning to have an adult son (John Hubbard), narrates a long flashback to the previous movie and plenty of its footage. Since it was unlikely anyone in the 1942 audience had seen The Mummy’s Hand since its release—if they had seen it at all—this backstory was probably necessary. Even so, the flashback is ridiculously prolonged, replaying all the major events of the earlier film with a large chunk of dialogue even though it only needs a short recap: “We dug up a mummy, a high priest animated it, it killed some of us, we burned it.” This flashback continues for eleven minutes, cutting costs for Universal and boring modern audiences. At least it allows some Egypt to get into the movie, as the rest of the story takes place in the United Sates. Again, I can hear the budget-cutting shears clipping away in the background.

High Priest Andoheb (George Zucco) survived his apparent death from shooting in the previous movie, and under his own old-age make-up, commands the incoming high priest Mehmet Bey (Turhan Bey) to send the mummy of Kharis on a revenge quest against the defilers. Andoheb then dies, and Zucco is out of the picture. Thanks for dropping by, George.

Already we have some continuity issues. The story takes place three decades after The Mummy’s Hand, which occurred in the present day. Which means this must be taking place in the future, but of course it looks just like 1942. Also, Kharis’s Mummy was incinerated in the last movie (and we see it happen again in the flashback), but reappears now unburned without any explanation. And Andoheb certainly took a long time before he decided to send Kharis against his enemies.

The answer to all this is, “Who cares?” Universal didn’t, and viewers of the time probably didn’t either, since they lacked the benefit of a DVD containing both films. I care only to the extent of pointing it out. Moving on. . . .

Mehmet Bey sets himself up as a cemetery caretaker near the Bannings’ estate in thrilling Mapleton, Massachusetts. Using tana leaves, Mehmet Bey animates Kharis in an underwhelming drive-through ceremony. Kharis starts his lukewarm reign of terror, knocking off the rest of the cast who aren’t quick enough to just get out of his way. The Hammer Mummy did most of these same scenes, but with more passion and energy and a more imposing actor playing John Banning instead of the anonymous Hubbard.

At least the movie doesn’t have any aggravating comic rele . . . oh no, did Wallace Ford just show up playing Babe, the annoying wiseacre from The Mummy’s Hand? Ah, don’t worry. Old age (make-up) has mellowed the fellow, and he doesn’t get in the way quite so much. In fact, he’s pretty energetic.

Too much of the movie looks like a standard ‘40s horror flick done on pre-standing sets. The Egyptian beauty you would expect from a Mummy movie is sadly absent. The film even concludes with a standard torch-bearing angry mob going after the monster. At one point during one of his kills, Kharis wanders onto a re-dressed Western town set. Hastily re-dressed: I kept expecting Tom Mix to gallop past.

It’s easy to see why Chaney didn’t like playing Kharis. Not only was the make-up process an arduous eight hours long, but Chaney didn’t get to do much acting under the bandages. Chaney’s boredom looks obvious in the listless way he drags himself around. The make-up has also dropped a few notches in quality so that Kharis looks baggy and rumpled.

The bright spot here is Turhan Bey, who gives the exoticism that the film needs as Mehmet Bey. Turhan Bey is a half-Czech, half-Turkish actor born in Austria who had a decent career as a leading man during the 1940s, and appeared in a few other of Universal’s horror films from the decade, such as The Mad Ghoul and The Climax. As of this writing, he’s still alive in his late eighties. Mehmet Bey’s infatuation with Isobel (Elyse Knox), John Banning’s fiancée, is about the only major character drama in The Mummy’s Tomb. The scene where Mehmet Bey explains to Kharis that he plans to send him on a mission to satisfy the High Priest’s personal lust—and thus breaking his vow as a priest of Karnak—is the film’s highpoint, and the only time Chaney actually gets to do something aside from very slowly murdering very slow-moving people. Both Chaney and Bey do some good subtle work here.

The best I can say about The Mummy’s Tomb is that it moves fast, doesn’t have much comedy, and finishes up in an hour and one minute. Or should I say fifty minutes, since a re-cap of another movie takes up eleven minutes. There’s not much memorable or atmospheric here, no interesting plot twists or striking visual moments. The quickie status is too apparent.

Kharis ends up incinerated once again, when the mob gets a touch enthusiastic and burns down the whole Banning mansion to get the limping thing. But fire didn’t keep Kharis down the last time, so why should this roasting be any different? The Mummy and a disgruntled Chaney will bounce back a year and half later with The Mummy’s Ghost. And do you know who would accompany them? John Carradine, the next in a line of show-stealing High Priests of Karnak.