For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
In the late 1930s, Universal Pictures executives believed the horror film cycle had run its course. They were, as most movie executives are, dead wrong.
A theater in Los Angeles booked a double feature of the studio’s original 1931 releases of Dracula and Frankenstein. The execs were shocked when they learned the theater was packed for most showings and that money was coming into their coffers.
So, Universal reversed course and began a new cycle of horror movies. Because the studio was under new management, these films would be more streamlined and cheaper to produce. The first movie off the line was Son of Frankenstein in 1939, followed by The Invisible Man Returns in January 1940 and The Mummy’s Hand in September 1940.
Unlike its two predecessors, The Mummy’s Hand was not a sequel. Rather it was a reimagining of 1932’s The Mummy, which starred Boris Karloff.
The Mummy was more of a supernatural love story than a horror film. In a nutshell: An ancient Egyptian high priest, Imhotep (Karloff), is buried alive for sacrilege for attempting to use the sacred Scroll of Thoth to raise his beloved princess from the dead. He and the scroll are buried in an unmarked grave.
The movie opens in 1922 at an Egyptian excavation site where Imhotep and the box containing the scroll has been unearthed. An eager assistant to archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) disregards the older man’s orders and begins reading the scroll. Imhotep awakens and takes the scroll. The young man instantly goes mad upon looking at the walking mummy, who vanishes.
Eleven years later, we pick up with Whemple’s son, Frank (David Manners). Imhotep, now calling himself Ardeth Bey, shows Frank Whemple where to dig to unearth the tomb of Anck-su-namun, his beloved princess. Basically, it turns out the princess has been reincarnated as Helen Grovesnor (Zita Johann), a half-Egyptian woman.
The rest of the movie deals with Ardeth Bey wanting to mummify, resurrect and make Grovesnor his immortal bride. He fails, of course, crumbling to dust at the finale. Fade out. The movie is compact, running just 73 minutes. Karloff is menacing but offers glimpses of humanity as he yearns to be reunited with his lost love.
The Mummy’s Hand was produced for $80,000, which would be about 30 seconds of footage in a Marvel Cinematic Universe release. It runs 67 minutes, and that includes the use of stock footage from The Mummy.
An important and major characterization of the mummy character is evident between the Karloff movie and the latter B-programmer films in the series. In The Mummy, Karloff’s Imhotep / Ardeth Bey is proactive, using his mind to devise steps to retrieve the soul of his princess so they can be reunited. In The Mummy’s Hand and its three sequels, the bandaged creature acts under the direction of a series of high priests of Karnak who, for ages — along with the mummy Kharis — have guarded the tomb of the princess Ananka in the Hills of the Seven Jackals.
Unlike Karloff’s mummy, brought back to life by the reading of the scroll, Kharis is immobile until fed a potion brewed from sacred tana leaves, which keep him alive. He also cannot speak because his tongue was cut out for his original sacrilege of stealing tana leaves to resurrect his beloved Ananka. That helps cut down on dialogue, as well as other benefits that I will explain later.
The Mummy’s Hand is more atmospheric action than horror. The movie stars Dick Foran as archaeologist Steve Banning, who, along with his sidekick, Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), is not having any luck until he finds part of a broken vase in a Cairo bazaar. Banning thinks it is an authentic Egyptian relic that, when its hieroglyphics are interpreted, will lead him to the lost tomb of Princess Ananka.
Banning needs financing for his expedition and receives it from Solvani (Cecil Kellaway), who, along with his daughter, Marta (Peggy Moran), and Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) of the Cairo Museum, head for the hills. Petrie’s Egyptian employee, Andoheb (George Zucco), who opposed the trek, is secretly the new high priest of Karnak, who beats them to the secret location of the tomb and, as villains often do in B-movies, explains everything to Petrie before ordering Kharis to kill him.
Kharis later kills an Egyptian overseer and kidnaps Marta for no apparent reason. Andoheb, of course, has the hots for Marta and plans to inject himself and her with tana fluid making them both immortal. But Jenson arrives in the nick of time and guns down Andoheb. At the same time, Banning rescues Marta who, conveniently, has overheard the secret of the tana leaves.
She warns Banning not to allow Kharis to drink them, so he shoots the cup from the mummy’s hand. When Kharis drops to the floor to ingest the liquid, Banning overturns a fiery brazier onto Kharis, engulfing him in flames. The movie fades out with the survivors of the expedition heading back to the United States with the mummy of Ananka.
Kharis was played by veteran cowboy star Tom Tyler, who also portrayed Captain Marvel in the Republic serial Adventures of Captain Marvel and The Ghost Who Walks in Columbia’s serial, The Phantom. Allowing Kharis to speak would have definitely shattered the illusion and menace of the mummy.
The follow-up feature, The Mummy’s Tomb, was released in 1942. It is set 30 years after the original and takes place in Mapleton, Mass., where it seems Andoheb survived being shot and plans revenge on Banning and his family. Though the movie runs a tight 60 minutes, it is filled with stock footage from The Mummy’s Hand as Banning (Foran in old-age makeup) recounts the story to some guests while, back in Egypt, Andoheb tells his follower, Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), the legend of Kharis and instructs him in the use of the tana leaves.
Andoheb dies, and Mehemet Bey takes the job as caretaker of the Mapleton cemetery, where he hides Kharis. He first sends Kharis to kill Banning, which he does as the old man prepares for bed. Babe Hanson (Ford, also in old-age makeup) arrives in Mapleton after hearing about his friend’s death.
Next to die is Jane Banning (Mary Gordon, who played Mrs. Hudson in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes movie series). This convinces Hanson that the mummy is alive and lurching in the United States. Soon after, the mummy bumps off Hanson. Banning’s son, John (John Hubbard), finally convinces the local yokels about Kharis and the hunt begins. Soon, Mehemet Bey comes under scrutiny. But the young high priest has some ideas of his own. Like his predecessor, he has become smitten by a young American girl, who so happens to be John Hubbard’s fiancée, Isobel Evans (Elysie Knox, wife of football star Tom Harmon and mother of actor Mark Harmon). When Bey sends Kharis to abduct Isobel and bring her to him, Kharis reluctantly obeys.
Soon, though, young Banning and the townspeople arrive and confront Bey. What they don’t know is that Kharis has slipped away with Isobel. Kharis takes her to the Banning home, where the young man rescues Isobel and, in the process, sets fire to the place. The young lovers escape, but Kharis is trapped on the balcony as townspeople throw torches at him and, again, Kharis seems to be consumed by fire.
In this movie, and the two subsequent sequels, Kharis is played by Lon Chaney Jr., who holds the distinction of being the only actor to portray Frankenstein’s creature, Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Mummy. Chaney Jr.’s casting is very odd. Any actor could have shuffled along in the role, so it seems a waste of talent to have Chaney in the part. Reports are that he hated the role and let the studio know his feelings.
The third movie in the series, The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), throws continuity out the window. First, Andoheb (still George Zucco), who supposedly died in the previous movie, is back and instructing another new, young acolyte, Yousef Bey (John Carradine), to travel to Mapleton to retrieve the body of Princess Ananka as well as Kharis, who somehow survived another fire (and how Andoheb knows this is never explained).
In Mapleton, a university professor explains the legends of the priests of Karnak and Kharis to his history class. Among his students are Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery) and his girlfriend, Amina Mansori (Ramsay Ames), a young woman of Egyptian descent. The use of tana leaves is tweaked in this outing: now, they must be brewed and given to Kharis, who will sense them and find Yousef Bey, during a full moon.
When they are brewed and Kharis is on the move, he passes Amina’s house and, in a trance-like state, she follows Kharis. Kharis arrives at the home of the history professor, who has brewed some tana leaves, strangles him and drinks the potion. Amina, seeing Kharis, snaps out of her trance and faints. Plus, a new birthmark mysteriously appears on her wrist.
The local sheriff and coroner, aware of Kharis from their last encounter, realize the mummy is again on the loose. By now, Yousef Bey has arrived in Mapleton and begins brewing the tana leaves. Kharis, on his way, kills a farmer who crosses his path.
The next day, the Egyptian priest who has hidden in the local museum, and Kharis, who breaks in, find the mummified body of Ananka. But when Kharis attempts to touch it, the body disintegrates. Yousef Bey realizes its meaning: Ananka has been reincarnated, a plot device borrowed from the 1932 original. The angry Kharis begins destroying the museum exhibit, killing a security guard for good measure.
Later, Kharis and Amina come together. He brings her to Yousef Bey, who, of course, falls for her and decides to keep her for himself. Kharis, of course, kills him, then carries Amina into a nearby swamp where Kharis and the rapidly aging Amina sink out of sight. Fade out.
Now, we come to The Mummy’s Curse (1944), the final film in the series. This is a strange movie in that, although supposedly also set around the swampy area of Mapleton, it seems to have shifted its location to somewhere in the Louisiana bayou, as we have superstitious Cajun characters with French accents.
Plus, time seems to have stood still. By now, the series of events would have placed this film in the 1970s or 1980s at least, but we are still in the mid-1940s.
The setting is never explained. It’s as though the filmmakers just threw up their hands and said, “Let’s get this over with.” Like its predecessors, the movie is a bit more than 60 minutes and was filmed on a shoestring budget. Chaney makes his last appearance as Kharis while the reincarnated Princess Ananka is now played by Virginia Christine.
The story opens with an engineering company trying to drain the swamp in which the two mummies were last seen. Their work, however, is delayed by the superstitious workers who believe the mummies haunt the swamp.
Two representatives of the local museum, Dr. James Halsey (Dennis Moore) and Dr. Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe) arrive on the scene hoping to find the mummies. News of a murdered workman halts the drainage, and it turns out Zandaab is a high priest of Arkam; I guess Karnak rebranded itself. One of Zandaab’s disciples, Ragheb (the always slimy Martin Kosleck), killed the workman.
Ragheb takes the mummy the workman had discovered to a nearby monastery. Zandaab explains the legend of Kharis to Ragheb, who you would have thought already knew it. Zandaab brews the tana leaves, awakening Kharis, who immediately kills the old caretake of the monastery.
Now the mummy of Ananka, having been partially unearthed by a bulldozer, rises and, wondering off, washes away the mud in a nearby swamp, revealing a lovely young woman. A local Cajun finds her and takes her to the owner of a local pub. Both are later killed by Kharis, causing Ananka to flee.
Ananka is found by Betty, the niece of the construction boss, who takes her to their camp, where a kindly doctor, who looks after her, is killed by Kharis. Ananka then runs into Betty’s tent, where Kharis finds his true love and carries her off to the monastery. Betty, not a good judge of character, asks Ragheb to help her find the young woman. Instead, he takes Betty to the monastery where, Zandaab tells Ragheb to kill her. But he refuses, killing the high priest instead.
Sensing Ragheb’s betrayal, the angry Kharis follows him to a cell-like room, where he brings the walls down, burying both of them. Meanwhile, in another room, Betty and Halsey find the mummified remains of Ananka, and that brings an end to the saga.
The most imaginative aspect of this entire series is the staging — how characters who could outrun and easily escape from Kharis always seem to back themselves into a corner or stand still with fright so Kharis can reach out, grab and strangle them.
Of all the classic Universal horror franchises, the Mummy movies — with the exception of Karloff’s original — are the weakest. They were all considered cheap programmers by the studio, produced and directed by second-string hacks. They relied on stock footage to pad the running time and reused Hans J. Salter’s score from The Mummy’s Hand for the three sequels.
This may sound as if I don’t appreciate these movies. On the contrary, I find them quaint and fun to watch, simply because of the inventive ways the filmmakers devised to create dread in a character who was neither very scary nor very mobile. Kharis could not transform into a bat like Dracula or a werewolf like Lawrence Talbot. Nor could he move as quickly as Frankenstein’s creature, who lumbered along on two good legs. Still, Kharis served his purpose, offering some simple scares that probably impressed young moviegoers of the time.
Seen through today’s perspective, they may be considered stereotypical and even offensive. Put all that aside, and just watch Kharis drag his body hither and yon as he tries to protect his aged love while continually being double-crossed by the high priests who had more lust than belief.