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From the Vaults: 'The Mummy's Hand' (1940)

May 31, 2010 |  5:17 am

Mummyshand Back to vintage horror this week, with a classic from the Universal vaults... although "The Mummy's Hand" is more of a remake (or re-imagining!) of the 1932 classic "The Mummy" starring Boris Karloff. Not quite a sequel but definitely not a whole new movie, it's sort of a hybrid in the vein of "Evil Dead 2" or, perhaps more accurately, "Superman Returns."

The original film stars Karloff as Im-ho-tep, an ancient Egyptian priest who is so heartbroken by the death of his true love, Ankh-es-en-amon, that he commits sacrilege in an attempt to revive her; when he is caught, he is forcibly wrapped in bandages and buried alive. A 1930s archaeological team accidentally revives him, and he goes prowling off after a fetching modern lass whom he hopes to sacrifice in order to reincarnate Ankh-etc., but he is defeated by the goddess Isis or something. It's brooding, gorgeous, romantic horror, with some amazingly beautiful sets and genuinely creepy moments, and a powerful central performance from Karloff.

"The Mummy's Hand" brings back the same mummy (now played by Tom Tyler) and girlfriend, but relegates them to much less central roles -- the poor mummy himself gets eighth billing in the opening credits (that's not quite halfway down). Given the snappier new names of Kharis and Ananka, they spend most of the movie in their crypts -- Ananka actually never gets out of hers at all. The movie opens with the same back story as the original "Mummy," using a lot of the same footage, although new mummy Tyler is featured in the close-ups instead of Karloff. But this film goes to some very different places.

Mostly "The Mummy's Hand" is an action-adventure film, not horror; the mummy really is just here for decoration, like the cobwebs that adorn a vampire's castle. Most of it scans like a Saturday morning cartoon -- which means it's a blast to watch. (At 67 minutes, it's also over in about the same amount of time, except without commercials.)

Our hero is earnest Steve Banning (Dick Foran), an archaeologist in Cairo who's running short of funds and whose wisecracking sidekick Babe (Wallace Ford) is anxious to return to New York. And our fez-wearing villain is Professor Andoheb (a riveting George Zucco), who secretly leads a secret order of priests who protect the secret of reviving Kharis. Apparently this order has been keeping Kharis alive through the centuries; his purpose is to guard the secret tomb of his onetime love Ananka. If anyone tries to find Ananka's tomb, the priests send Kharis after them. Meanwhile, Steve and Babe have banked everything they have left on an expedition to find .... Ananka's tomb! Conflict!

MummyshandsceneThe modern viewer sort of has to come down on the anti-archaeologist side here. Not only is it wrong to  desecrate tombs and disrespect native cultures, but the modern viewer has seen mummy movies before and knows there will always be nasty consequences. But the heroes here are pretty lovable. Almost immediately I was thinking "gosh, I hope they don't find the tomb, but they're such nice guys." They team up, randomly enough, with an American magician (Cecil Kellaway) who agrees to fund their expedition, and his comely daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), who provides both a love interest and someone for the mummy to carry off when he eventually appears. In the meantime, there are fisticuffs, slapstick, magic tricks, wacky misunderstandings and snappy dialogue. It's not scary, but it's plenty entertaining.

When the action finally does move into the desert, as the team digs for tombs, the tone shifts only slightly toward horror. The team is creeped out by the full moon and the jackals howling in the distance outside their camp, but their distress is fleeting, quickly dispersed by more wisecracks: "They're giving me goose bumps on toppa my goose bumps!" Kharis awakens, but the moment's not nearly as impressive as Karloff's awakening in the first film (ah, that moment when Karloff's eyes open -- brr!). Kharis goes lurching around obediently at Andoheb's bidding, but he's clearly just a stooge: the very human Andoheb is at the center of all the villainy. And in the end, he is a total villain -- his principled wish to protect his culture from invading academic forces is eventually compromised by his desire to take Marta for a bride.

So despite the mummy wrappings, it's really just not a supernatural movie. Still, it's a good ride.

It's also Tyler's only turn as the mummy; although Kharis is destroyed at the end of the film, he's revived with the help of Lon Chaney Jr. in 1942's "The Mummy's Tomb." (Also returning are Banning and Babe, plus the unholy Andoheb, who proves you don't have to be a mummy to return from the dead.) But that's all we have time for today. Stay out of old tombs, kids!

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Above: Anhodeb (George Zucco) prepares Marta (Peggy Moran) for a vague yet undoubtedly nasty fate, as Kharis (Tom Tyler) accepts that he's just here to stand around.