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Friday, July 17, 2009

Retro Review: The Mummy's Hand

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...

8 comments:

Andrew said...

Great work..go ahead..

I like this blog..


Thanks for sharing...


___________________
Andrew
The Best PRICE for the BEST ENTERTAINMENT

R. Usher said...

1.In the commentary or on one of the special feature interviews on the Mummy Legacy collection they said they went through frame by frame and painted Tyler's eyes black. That's why they sort of vibrate around the edges sometimes and look more like empty holes than contacts. Cool effect and very disconcerting.

2.The Hammer Mummy is more than just a remake of The Mummy's Hand. If you watch all the Universal Mummy movies including the original and then watch the Hammer version you can see where they grabbed bits and pieces of every movie in the franchise and turned it into one coherent 88 minute story. It's a very impressive achievement and a model for the way a franchise can be restarted in a way that will be familiar to fans of the originals and still be fresh and entertaining.

I just found this blog a couple of weeks ago and I have enjoyed looking through the older posts. I am looking forward to the next history of werewolves post. Do you keep track of comments in older threads or should I wait for the next full moon?

B-Sol said...

I certainly do keep track of past comments, so feel free to leave them on the past entries if you like! And the third and final part of the werewolf history is coming soon...

Tower Farm said...

Wow...I really thought I was the only one who liked the 40s "Mummy" films better than the Karloff original. I have lived with this secret shame for years. Now that I know someone else feels the same it's like a new beginning.

Thank you for freeing me...
-Billy

B-Sol said...

You must embrace Kharis! Embrace him!!

Guy Budziak said...

As a child of five back in 1960 my parents let me stay up late one Friday evening to watch Shock Theatre, which came on at 11:30 right after the local news. It was the first horror film I'd ever seen in my wee life, and the feature that night was the original 1932 MUMMY with Karloff. While I understand the rationale behind your preference, this film will always loom large for me. It possesses one significant element that so few modern horror films sadly lack, and that's atmosphere. A sustained atmosphere, like that found in the best horror films, be they classic Universal, Bava's BLACK SUNDAY, or Tourneur's CURSE OF THE DEMON, is what defines quality for me in my appreciation of the genre. But it's been years since I've seen any of the Mummy follow-ups, so I'll have to suspend judgment until I catch up with them again. The scene that blew my mind as a kid was when they looked into the pool of water and were transported back in time to ancient Egypt, it's the one sequence that my mind still so vividly retains. But I do have to admit, it is disappointing that you never really got to see Karloff as the mummy when he first awakens.

Al Bruno III said...

I share your love for the Kharis films. My Dad used to have the cut down (dare I say 'Money Shot'?) versions of the Kharis films so they made a big impression on me at a young age.

The idea of an egyptian mummy wandering around in an American swap has always been a favorite mental image of mine.

In fact... in honor of the mummy nostalgia your post has woken in me, let me share this with you...

http://albruno3.blogspot.com/2009/07/artifacts-and-heirlooms-another-oldie.html

B-Sol said...

Thanks Al, good stuff!

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