October 06, 2008
The Mummy's Hand (1940)
During the first half of the decade of the 30s, Carl Laemmle Jr. took Universal Studios to days of great commercial success and critic acclaim. After having received the company as a gift from his father, Laemmle Jr. began to take riskier decisions and to really spend a lot in his productions. The results were some of Universal's greatest success, including what's now known as the Golden Age of Horror, a period in which Universal Horror (starting the classics "Dracula" and "Frankenstein", both from 1931) established the path to follow for American horror of those years. Sadly, those risky decisions took a toll on the company when after spending too much on a couple of disastrous flops forced the two Laemmles to sell the company in 1935. With Laemmle Jr. out, horror was no longer a priority for the studio, and the genre was soon relegated to the studio's B-movies. This gets pretty obvious in the 40s, and the saga of Kharis the mummy, of which "The Mummy's Hand" is the first installment, is a good example of that.
"The Mummy's Hand" is the story of Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and Babe Jenson (Wallace ford), two archaeologists without luck, without work and without money. One day Steve finds real evidence about the burial place of the ancient Egyptian princess Ananka, a legendary tomb that's supposed to be perfectly preserved, which to the pair means fame and fortune. To fund their expedition, the duo convince an eccentric stage magician named The Great Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) to join them and provide the funding, and with Solvani also joins them his beautiful daughter Marta (Peggy Moran). The unlikely team follows the clues and discover Ananka's tomb, but after the discovery they are abandoned by their crew, terrified by the legends about a curse. But the legends will prove to have some truth beneath them, as the archaeologists will have to face the guardian of the tomb, a High priest (George Zucco) decided to employ his most terrifying ally: Kharis the Mummy (Tom Tyler), an undead assassin at the service of Ananka.
Written by Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane, "The Mummy's Hand" is not really a sequel to Karl Freund's 1932 classic, "The Mummy" (which starred Boris Karloff), as instead it's a remake of sorts that takes the same concept and gives it a completely different spin. Like "The Mummy", it's the tale of a group of archaeologists fighting a living mummy, but there are two key differences: the first and most obvious one is that unlike Karloff's Imhotep, Kharis is a mute, unstoppable killing machine controlled by the ancient sorcery of the High Priest (in a sense, Imhotep's character is divided in two). The second difference is that the movie is no longer a Gothic horror drama, but a horror adventure tale with a good dose of comedy (in a tone akin to that of adventure serials produced by Republic Pictures). Surprisingly, this mix works nicely, mainly because the focus is not in the villain, but in the heroes and the dynamics between them, exploiting their different personalities (serious Steve and wisecracking Babe for example) for comedy effect.
One of the most prolific directors of the silent era, Christy Cabanne made successfully the jump to sound without problem thanks to his skill for making movies with very low budgets and his willingness to work as a director for hire. Sadly, this tendency of his often resulted in mediocre films that were either dull or boring or both (or worse). Fortunately, "The Mummy's Hand" is one of the better films in Cabanne's career, as it's a far more pleasant and entertaining experience than other works by him. The reason of this is not only that the script and cast were better than his usual (specially for his "talkie" years), but the fact that if there was something that Cabanne seemed to enjoy to make, that was stories of comedy and adventure (he discovered Douglas Fairbanks), and "The Mummy's Hand" is all about that. Cabanne understands that this "Mummy" was no longer horror in the strict sense, and so lets the story flow thrill after thrill at an appropriately fast pace that also helps to keep the comedy bits in tone with the film.
Acting in the film is also quite good, or in the worst of the cases, at least watchable. As Steve Banning, Dick Foran is effective and convincing, with a confident attitude and a screen presence good enough for filling the role of the classic All-American adventure hero. Serious and tough, Foran makes an excellent straight man for Wallace Ford's rapid fire delivery of wisecracking comedy. Ford steals every scene he is in, so it's quite an achievement for Foran to avoid being overshadowed by his costar. As Marta Solvani, Peggy Moran is a nice addition to the cast, being not only a real beauty, but also able to convey the naiveté and youthful joy of her character. Cecil Kellaway plays her eccentric father, and he does it with an ease and a charm that makes it seem like he had lots of fun in the role. In the villain's side, the ever reliable George Zucco is quite menacing as the High Priest, almost as menacing as Tom Tyler's Kharis, whose size and stiffness make a frightening sight as a very imposing monster (I guess sometimes stiffness is a bless).
Amongst fans and critics, the saga of Kharis the Mummy is often regarded as a series of cheap, repetitive stories about evil High Priests and a shambling mummy chasing victims through the film until the default hero stops them; but while probably this is sadly true to a certain extent, "The Mummy's Hand" stands out in the series not only for being the first one (and therefore fresher), but because of the touch of adventure that later films lacked. Granted, Cabanne's film is far from being a masterpiece, but I find that while the movie showcases low production values, a predictable storyline and Cabanne's unimaginative directing, the film's worst enemies are in fact the highly bad (somewhat undeserved) reputation of its sequels coupled with the highly good (this one well-deserved) reputation of the original film; which tend to leave "The Mummy's Hand"'s few but remarkable assets forgotten. As written above, this is not great film-making, but a word must be said about Jack Pierce's make-up, which even when it's simpler than the one Karloff used, makes Tom Tyler the scariest of the three Universal's mummies.
While "The Mummy's Hand" is the beginning of a series that seemed to gradually go downhill with each released installment, it has a quality and fun rarely seen in posterior chapters of Kharis' saga (I'm not saying that those films lack good moments, they do have some charm, but the moments of true genius get rarer). As a tale of adventures with a horror touch, Christy Cabanne's "The Mummy's Hand" is quite effective and delivers good fun, as it mixes almost seamlessly what was left of Universal Horror's classic style with that of the adventure serials that were popular at the time. In a way, while Stephen Sommers' 1999 re-imagining of "The Mummy" is a remake of Karl Freund's original film in terms of plot, the whole feeling and atmosphere comes almost directly from this little thriller instead of the 1932 classic. "The Mummy's Hand" may not be a classic of horror, but it's certainly unworthy of the bad name it got after the following films with Kharis the Mummy.
Buy "The Mummy's Hand" (1940)