Sunday, May 18, 2008


Continuing with our inclusion of mummy pictures, we turn our attention to 1940's THE MUMMY'S HAND. There's been a smattering of debate over whether this film is a direct sequel to the 1932 classic starring Boris Karloff, or merely the start of an entirely different series of films that just so happened to come from the same studio and featured a mummy.

Maybe it's a little of both, though those who claim that HAND bears no relation to the original must not have noticed the snippets of footage lifted from Karl Freund's picture, nor have they realized that HAND recycles the Karloff backstory, splicing in new shots of Tom Tyler as the newly-dubbed Kharis. (And how could they not have, as these moments contain the only real style of the picture.)

Reused footage notwithstanding, it's pretty apparent that Universal had a new direction in mind for their new MUMMY films, and I'm sure the operative word was "cheap." Whereas all of the classic monsters suffered from diminishing returns with each additional sequel, the MUMMY films jumped straight into programmer mode with its very first follow-up. Gone are the mood-enhancing lighting schemes, the opulent sets (except for the temple scenes which borrowed the sets from GREEN HELL), and the high-caliber talent; behind the camera is Christy Cabanne, a prolific but undistinguished director, and in front a mixed bag of actors including the great George Zucco (standing out as the mummy's mortal henchman), Peggy Moran, and Wallace Ford (playing here a Joe Pesci prototype as the so-called comic relief). HAND may have had the advantage of a slick studio pedigree, but it's really just one notch above the typical Poverty Row potboiler, with too much time spent on stagebound banter that the mummy practically becomes an afterthought.

As for the movie itself, it's a thin but often entertaining adventure masquerading as a fright film. A prologue of sorts sets to establish its own set of rules for the mummy Kharis, as Zucco is instructed by a high priest in the manner of the tana leaves that control Kharis (and a complicated set at that; owning a Mogwai is easier than keeping this bag of bones). It's Zucco's duty to protect Kharis's resting place from a group of Brooklyn-based archaeologists (Dick Foran and Ford, accompanied by Moran and her magician father) in search of treasure. Of course, if Zucco was any good at his job there wouldn't be a movie, so he unleashes Kharis on the treasure-hunters once they uncover the mummy's tomb.

Kharis stays off-screen for most of the movie, leaving Foran and Moran's budding desert romance and Ford's shtick to carry the story, and once the mummy finally walks he elicits more chuckles than chills. Ever mindful of his top-billed co-stars, Kharis is careful only to kill off the secondary characters (who must not've been very important, as Foran and company still sleep peacefully in their tents after discovering two bodies in their camp site, remaining disturbingly nonplussed), and appears more concerned with drinking tana brew than chasing our stars. (The idea to blacken Kharis's eyes--which involved hand-painting each individual frame--was a good one, giving his few close-ups a sorely-needed menacing feel.) The action is fairly rote, but I was surprised that second-banana Ford is the one who saves the day.

Some have argued that Stephen Sommers's 1999 version is ostensibly a remake of this film more than the 1932 original. I can certainly see the resemblance, with so-so computer effects distracting from the equally asinine humor and lightweight story. But at least THE MUMMY'S HAND still retains its nostalgic, Saturday afternoon matinee feel, a quality I doubt Sommers can boast in another sixty years.

(Here's a bunch of trailers for Universal's MUMMY films.)

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