The Mummy’s Hand, 1940

It’s the sequel that’s not a sequel.  By the time Universal got around to doing a follow-up to The Mummy, Boris Karloff was no longer interested in reprising the role.  But unlike with Frankenstein’s creature, which is supposed to be unique, it was far easier to drop in a new and different mummy.  In the 1920s and ’30s following the successful excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb, mummies were everywhere, so much so that a person looking to profit could only sell a mummy as fuel, a la firewood.  It didn’t stop the popular imagination, however, thanks to Karloff and Universal’s monster machine.  It also turned out that Mummy films were cheap enough and interesting enough to turn a profit, so The Mummy’s Hand became the first in a series of four featuring a mummy called Kharis, not to be confused with Karloff’s Imhotep.

To fill Karloff’s wrappings, noted character actor Tom Tyler was cast.  Tyler is best remembered to us from his role as a western and serial actor.  His most memorable role is the lead in 1941’s Adventures of Captain Marvel, considered today to be the very best of the classic serials.  For my part, I always feel like he’s one who should be remembered better.  This guy was around from the silent era, having performed all manner of odd jobs from sailor to boxer to lumberjack to champion weightlifter before landing gigs as a stuntman and extra.  With over 180 screen credits to his name, he’s performed in films such as Stagecoach and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and took the title role in one of my favorite serials, 1943’s The Phantom.  And yet… most people today can’t tell you who he is.  When people think of The Mummy, they think of Karloff or of Tyler’s successor, Lon Chaney, Jr., who would reprise the role of Kharis in the next three Mummy films.  Tyler seems to always be lost in the mix.  I sometimes think if Chaney’s mummy had been given a new name, Tyler’s might be more distinct somehow.  We’ll never know.

Unlike Karloff’s Imhotep, the role of Kharis is a silent role, the character’s tongue having been removed as part of his everlasting torture.  This is one of the ideas they later carried over to the 1999 reboot.  But I get ahead of myself.  As with Karloff’s Imhotep, Tyler’s Kharis is tortured for love, a common theme with many of the monsters.  The story presented here is that Kharis steals some sacred tana leaves in the hopes of restoring life to his beloved Princess Ananka.  Of course, he’s discovered, buried alive, and the leaves are buried with him as a means to continue his existence.  Borrowing from the werewolf motif that Lon Chaney, Jr., would make famous the following year, the idea here is that fluid brewed from three tana leaves is to be given to the mummy every full moon to keep him alive, a secret passed down from high priest to high priest into the modern era.  That’s where our story opens, with a dying priest relating this story to his successor.  Should the tomb of the Princess be violated, a fluid of nine leaves will unleash the creature to wreak havoc on the defilers.

With the setup in place, that leaves only for some unlucky bastard to violate the tomb and/or discover the creature.  Enter Steve Banning (Dick Foran), out of luck archaeologist, and his sidekick Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford).  Banning discovers the remnants of a broken vase in a Cairo bazaar, leading him to believe it holds clues to the Princess’ tomb.  Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) of the Cairo Museum supports his claim, but Andoheb (George Zucco) — the new high priest guarding the secret of Kharis and also working for the museum — declares it a fake and denies funding to the expedition.  Banning and Jenson turn to alternative means for funding, recruiting Solvani (Cecil Kellaway), an American magician with more money than brains.  Following a warning visit from Andoheb, Solvani’s daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) is convinced Banning is a fraud.

All the same, the expedition will not be thwarted, so the Solvanis tag along in search of the Hill of the Seven Jackals, burial place of Princess Ananka.  They unwittingly stumble across the tomb of Kharis instead, finding both the mummy and the tana leaves, but nothing of their Princess.  Andoheb appears to Dr. Petrie and bids him to feel the creature’s pulse.  The aforementioned nine-leaf brew is given, and the mummy claims Petrie as his first victim.  Some obligatory camp raiding later, the team attempts to track down the monster.

Meanwhile, Andoheb has become quite enamored of Marta.  He plans to inject himself and her with tana fluid, granting them both with immortality.  The race is on to free the woman and destroy the creature.

The Mummy’s Hand has absolutely zero of the mystique that made the original work as a horror film, but instead is something of an action-adventure flick.  Again, if you combine this and the original, you get the template for what they’d pull in the ’99 version.  But because of the lack of mystical dread, and probably because of the lack of the Karloff charisma as well, the movie comes across as pretty average fare.  There’s no real sense of danger, no real love story, and a bunch of ideas that would become standard tropes classic bits.  That’s actually what this movie is best known for.  That standard image of the monster holding the unconscious beauty that’s so famous across the entirety of monster films from Universal and Hammer and beyond?  This was the first one to do that.

In the final analysis, The Mummy’s Hand is indeed average, just average, really average.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, especially for those of us who just can’t get enough of such B-grade monster fare.  Just goes to show you that star ratings really don’t give you the whole picture.  Even on its own merits, without the legacy of Universal Monsters to back it up, The Mummy’s Hand is still quite watchable.  And clocking in at only 66 minutes, it by no means wears out its welcome.  It’s just that given the time allotted, it takes a little too long to get to the fun part.  For someone like myself, it’s fun to see the classic bits get dropped into place and see how they’re used time and again across generations.

And besides… where else can you find great behind-the-scenes photos of a leading lady using an old blow dryer on a monster?

You’re welcome.  Someday I’ll learn the story behind this one.

2 stars

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