I've confessed my secret preference for the Kharis Mummy series of the 1940s over the much more highly regarded Boris Karloff Mummy of 1932 here in the Vault before. It's an opinion I've maintained ever since first discovering the '40s series a couple years ago. See, some may despise me for it, but the first Universal Mummy film has never been a favorite of mine. It was the Kharis series that gave me what I was really craving when it came to mummy action...
Eight long years after Boris Karloff made the role of Imhotep his own in Universal's classic film The Mummy, the studio decided to completely "reboot" its franchise (geez, sound familiar?). What they did was start over completely from scratch, with a brand new mummy and a whole new story. This mummy was the one and only Kharis, and his story would begin in this 1940 B-movie gem.
That was another major shift that had occurred at Universal from the time of the original Mummy to the dawn of the new decade. Whereas the horror films put out by the studio had once been considered major deals, by the end of the 1930s, horror had been shuffled off to Universal's B-lot. In other words, they were not quite treated as seriously, or given as large of a budget. So by all rights, The Mummy's Hand should've been an entirely forgettable affair.
However, Universal decided to have a lot more fun with this new Mummy film, to let loose and not take things so seriously. And the result, for my money, was pure classic horror gold. The Mummy's Hand is great fun, a true B-horror film of the highest order, and one which gives the viewer exactly what he/she is looking for.
For example, whereas Karloff's Mummy had been a fairly slow affair, with an admittedly nuanced performance from Karloff and very little in the way of mummy action, The Mummy's Hand gave us a true lumbering, bandaged mummy, wreaking havoc throughout the movie, choking victims left and right, and coming across as nothing less than a 1940s proto-Jason. As opposed to Imhotep, who only appears in mummy get-up very briefly in the film, and spends the rest in the human(ish) form of Ardeth Bay.
I remember always being somewhat disappointed as a kid, because I didn't get to see much mummy hyjinks in the 1932 film--at least not in the way I expected. What I had expected was a mindless, hulking creature who does his master's bidding and squeezes the life out of unfortunate humans. But what I didn't realize until all those years later, was that the image of the mummy which I had formed in my mind actually originated in this film, The Mummy's Hand. And just to show you how infuential it was, it was this film, and not the 1932 Mummy, which Hammer Films actually remade in the form of their 1959 version of the The Mummy.
Veteran B-movie helmer Christy Cabanne sat in the director's chair for this one, and while I'm not claiming it was any brilliant piece of directing by any stretch of the imagination, the man certainly knew how to deliver a fine piece of genre entertainment. And Elwood Bredell, who would later go on to lens such Universal horror flicks as The Ghost of Frankenstein, Hold That Ghost and The Invisible Woman, sets the perfect mood with some nicely atmospheric photography.
Although uncredited, it was movie makeup legend Jack Pierce, Universal's go-to guy for 20 years, who provided the distinctive makeup for Kharis. And the makeup used in this first installment was noticeably superior to that used in the later films of the series. Particularly chilling are Kharis' jet-black eyes, presumably created using some early (and no doubt extremely uncomfortable) movie contact lenses. He's also played by stuntman Tom Tyler, who seems to be given much more to do, ironically, than Lon Chaney Jr. was given in the role in the subsequent sequels. Bottom line, Kharis is one terrifying movie monster.
Popular movie cowboy Dick Foran stars as Steve Banning, the spotless and vaguely annoying hero archaeologist who uncovers the mummy and releases his curse. Much more interesting to me is his "comic relief" sidekick Babe Jenson, played by Wallace Ford--a.k.a. Phrozo the Clown from Freaks. Also of note is 1940s B-horror legend George Zucco in the supporting role of Banning's clueless colleague Prof. Andoheb. Instantly recognizable character actor Cecil Kellaway, fresh off an appearance the previous year in the classic Wuthering Heights, shows up here as The Great Solvani, the wealthy stage magician who funds the Egyptian expedition.
I know that the 1932 Mummy will always be considered the unquestioned classic, and I'm not denying it is a better-made picture overall. But what I'm also saying is that The Mummy's Hand is just a lot more fun--a movie you can kick back with if you're in the mood for some true golden age Universal movie monster mayhem. This is the stuff that the "monster kid" generation was weaned upon. It's got chills, thrills, adventure and a generous dose of hokiness. It may be no somber, brooding masterpiece of cinematic horror, but when I think of ancient, bandaged, Egyptian dudes, The Mummy's Hand will always be the film that first comes to mind...