When Universal decided to bring back the concept of a living mummy as a B picture in 1940 with The Mummy’s Hand, they borrowed (and doctored) footage from the 1932 classic and they copped some impressive sets left over from James Whale’s expensive flop from the previous year, Green Hell (all right, so the gods depicted are South American, not Egyptian). They also rewrote the earlier mythology, and in so doing gave us what is still the basic idea of the 4,000-year-old bandaged horror that we’ve come to think of as a movie mummy. (The original Mummy offered something very different.) Art it wasn’t—and isn’t—but it was still a good bit of classic B-horror fun that spawned three sequels, the first of which, The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) is being screened in conjunction with The Mummy’s Hand for a double-threat of that shambling ancient monster known as Kharis.
The original 1932 The Mummy had only a minute of reanimated mummy in the sense we tend to think. Im-ho-tep gets brought back to life when someone ill-advisedly reads the Scroll of Thoth in his presence, whereupon he merely wanders off with the scroll. Afterwards, he appears in unwrapped form as an excessively wrinkled and very well-spoken gent called Ardath Bey with the disconcerting ability to make his eyes glow and cause long-distance heart attacks. The first seems mostly showy. The latter could prove useful.
When the studio—or rather its then current incarnation, briefly known as “New Universal”—dusted the old boy off—renaming him Kharis—he became a kind of fancy dress zombie kept alive with fluid made from something called tana leaves, and more or less under the control of a hight priest of Karnak. Three leaves keep him alive, nine leaves give him the ability to move around (albeit slowly) and kill off assorted infidels. In The Mummy’s Hand, there’s also a proviso that more than nine leaves will turn Kharis into “a monster such as the world has never known.” Somehow this got lost in the sequels, but then Universal—being Universal—would also get the prescribed quantities of leaves backwards by the time it was all over.
The Mummy’s Hand is probably the best of the lot. Certainly, it’s the fastest moving and best cast, benefitting particularly from George Zucco as Prof. Andoheb, who is actually the latest high priest—inheriting the job from Eduardo Cianelli in the opening scene. Zucco is—as usual—magnficiently Satanic and amusingly transparent in his perfidy. It turns out, he’s also surprisingly libidinous, getting all het up over the pretty heroine (Peggy Moran). This would prove a common failing in high priests, who must have been a randy lot. Actually, the high priest is an essential component because, let’s face it, Kharis isn’t much of a character—and any monster who moves so slowly (after all those years, the old rockin’ chair’s definitely got him) that his victim has to accomodate the creature by freezing in terror or backing into a corner is a little menace-challenged.
While The Mummy’s Hand is decidedly economical (slapping some Egyptian hieroglyphics on those ancient Mayan—or Aztec or Incan—sets isn’t all that convincing), The Mummy’s Tomb is perhaps the most economical film Universal ever turned out. Oh, yes, it replaces cowboy star Tom Tyler with Lon Chaney, Jr. as Kharis (actually, it could be anybody in that make-up), but that only looks like an upgrade because Chaney was their new big horror star. He was also a contract player and didn’t cost much. Where the first film recycled sets, some footage from The Mummy, and the music from Son of Frankenstein (1939), the second not only recycles footage from The Mummy, but from the 1931 Frankenstein (most of the mob footage at the climax), and The Mummy’s Hand. In fact, the first 11 minutes of this 60 minute movie are nothing more than a digest version of the first movie (“Previously on The Mummy…”). The music this round is from The Wolf Man (1941).
For this second outing, Kharisgets to come to New England. (In the third film, he’d disappear in a New England swamp, only to somehow end up in the Louisiana bayous in the fourth entry. Obviously, continental drift at work.) And he has a new high priest (Turhan Bey), who is no better about thinking south of the border than his predecessor and isn’t nearly as much fun. Kharis does get one priceless moment when he does a “take” upon hearing of the priest’s decision to take a bride, but it’s mostly business as usual. One thing in its favor—apart from the fun factor—is that the scenes of Kharis prowling through the night are genuinely creepy. Mostly, though it’s a slick programmer that’s entertaining nonsense.