Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Franchises: Universal's Original Mummy Series. The Mummy's Hand (1940)

For a long time, I was under the impression that I had seen either this film or one of its sequels when I was a little kid, as I remember watching an old mummy movie with my mother one Saturday. It stuck out to me particularly because I remembered that the mummy was called Kharis, a name I knew from a book on these films that I had checked out from the library, but now, I know that what we watched was Hammer's color version of the story with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. While I would see the original Boris Karloff film when I was in middle school, it wasn't until my senior year in high school when I finally saw this film and its three follow-ups, when I got the Universal Legacy DVD set of these films for Christmas. I asked for the set mainly just so I could complete my collection of Universal's classic horror, as well as to see these other films, although that said, they weren't very high on my pecking order since I'm not the biggest fan of the Mummy in general. I knew going in that they were not at all like the Karloff movie and were the source of the more traditional image of the character as a shambling, zombie-like monster wrapped up in bandages, so I figured that, if nothing else, they would be entertaining on a B-movie level. And, indeed, that's what we have here in the first of the "Kharis" films, The Mummy's Hand. This movie is no classic by any means, and is not atmospheric or suspenseful in the least, but it is entertaining, although mainly for the memorable characters and the fast pace (it's only 66 minutes long and, even then, it's the longest of any of the "Kharis" films) since the Mummy himself is not onscreen that much. Unfortunately, it also sets a precedent for what would become a very repetitive, uninspired, and stale series of movies. Let's not get ahead of ourselves here, though.

Egyptian professor Andoheb travels to the Hill of the Seven Jackals upon being summoned by the High Priest of Karnak, who is old and dying and who Andoheb is to succeed. When he arrives, the priest tells him the story of the death of Princess Ananka thousands of years ago and how the high priest, Kharis, who was in love with her, couldn't bare being without her. Defying the wrath of the gods, Kharis stole a box containing tana leaves, the brewed fluid of which could restore life to the dead, but when he was caught trying to resurrect the princess, he was buried alive for his punishment after his tongue had been cut out. The tana leaves were buried with him in an unmarked grave out in the desert but the other priests of Karnak removed his body and took it, along with the tana leaves, to a hidden cave in the valley. The high priest then tells Andoheb that Kharis has been kept alive throughout the centuries with the fluid of the leaves in order to exact death upon those who would defile Ananka's tomb. During the cycle of the full moon, three leaves must be boiled in order to keep his heart beating, whereas nine leaves will give him the strength to move and kill any intruders. Andoheb is warned that if Kharis drinks the fluid of more than nine leaves, he would become an unstoppable killing machine. Elsewhere, archeologists Steve Banning and Babe Jensen are stuck in Cairo with very little money after the former loses his job at the museum. Steve comes across a broken vase at the local market, which he believes to be a genuine Egyptian relic, and when he buys it and takes it to Dr. Petrie at the museum, they become convinced that the hieroglyphics point the way to Princess Ananka's tomb. Andoheb, who also works at the museum, tries to dissuade them, telling them that the vase is a fake and that past expeditions to the location have never returned, but Steve and Petrie are adamant about it and seek a way to fund an expedition of their own. After some failed attempts, Steve and Babe meet the Great Solvani, an American magician, who offers to put up the money, although his daughter, Marta, thinks the archeologists are conmen after Andoheb tells her so. Still, they venture to the valley, where they uncover Kharis' tomb and find the mummy himself, but there is no sign of Ananka. Little do they know that Andoheb and his assistant have followed them to the valley and plan to resurrect Kharis to kill them all.

The film's director, Christy Cabanne, was a very prolific one, with a filmography that has nearly 170 films on it. He'd worked ever since practically the beginning of the film industry, in 1910, as not only a director but also an actor and screenwriter and was an assistant to D.W. Griffith. After 1912, he stuck with directing and screenwriting full time, mainly as a fast-working director-for-hire on a good number of low budget, B-movies for small studios like Monogram Pictures and Majestic Pictures, but he did occasionally work at MGM and RKO, and also notably directed Shirley Temple in her first feature, The Red-Haired Alibi. He did quite a few films with Universal as well, often B-movies, with The Mummy's Hand, which he filmed in only two weeks, being one of his most notable. Another noteworthy film, at least in the horror genre, is Scared to Death, which starred Bela Lugosi in his only color film (experimental, 16mm color film, I might add) and was released in 1947, even though it was filmed in '44. Cabanne's last film in his long career was the 1948 western, Silver Trails. He died of a heart attack in 1950, at the age of 62.

We might as well get the stiff out of the way first, and I don't mean the Mummy. Steve Banning (Dick Foran) is your typical dime-a-dozen, bland leading man: handsome, but with no personality to back his good looks up, save for occasional glimpses of some intelligence when he deduces that the vase he comes across in the bazaar in Cairo points the way to Princess Ananka's tomb through its hieroglyphics and when he's shown to be a decent guy when he tells Marta Solvani that if they'd known her father didn't have much money, they wouldn't have asked him to finance the expedition. In fact, speaking of that aforementioned "intelligence," even though the characters tell of past discoveries that he's made, Steve doesn't do much to prove that he's worthy of the praise, as he doesn't make much progress when examining Kharis' tomb (which they found by accident, thinking it was Ananka's tomb they were blowing open, and after uselessly digging around in the desert by it) and it's Marta who figures out where the tomb they're looking for might actually be, the discovery of which leads to Steve becoming the head of the museum that had fired him. Really, the only thing he's good at is slugging it out with some brawlers in a Cairo restaurant when a fight breaks out; he doesn't do much good against Kharis, though, who's immune to his bullets and throws him around like he's nothing (that's no fault of his, though), with Steve only managing to kill him setting him on fire. You can kind of think of Steve as a prototypical Indiana Jones, only without the charisma and much of the smarts, or brawn.

As for Marta Solvani (Peggy Moran), I can give her more credit in that she's not a naïve, wishy-washy girl who'll stand by and watch her father get potentially swindled. Even though it's influenced by a lie from Andoheb, when she thinks that her slightly childish father has given all of his money to two strangers who might be conmen plotting to kill him once they get him out in the desert, she takes charge of the situation, making it so her father can't interfere and takes a trick pistol to Steve Banning and Babe Jensen's hotel room, planning to use it to scare them into giving her back the money (they have a reason to be scared, too; that "trick" pistol shoots a bunch of holes into a door!) Even when they make their case that they're real archeologists and they really think that they're onto something big, Marta still insists on traveling with them to the Hill of the Seven Jackals, just in case they do attempt to rob and kill her father. While she's still rather snippy towards them when they first arrive there and don't find anything other than Kharis, as she works with Steve, she begins to grow closer to him and ultimately falls for him like every typical 40's leading lady. She does manage to show off some intelligence by deducing where Ananka's tomb might actually be but, in the end, she becomes a damsel in distress when Kharis carries her off to the temple and has to be saved from both him and Andoheb, who's been enchanted with her since they first met and plans to make the two of them immortal. And as Babe mentions, even after Kharis has been destroyed, she faints in Steve's arms. The movie ends with her and Steve now an official couple.

One of the best parts of the movie is Steve's friend, Babe Jensen (Wallace Ford), who's among the most enjoyable comic reliefs in any horror film in my humble opinion. He's really funny right from the get-go, buying a toy belly dancer that he names "Poopsie" and carries her around throughout the film as a good luck charm, although she doesn't do much to bring him any. As the movie goes on, he displays a quick, witty of talking and different types of funny shtick, like a card trick that he uses to acquire free drinks, only for it to backfire when he unknowingly tries it on the Great Solvani (the way he's confidently puffing on a cigar during this bit only adds to his crushing defeat, wherein he has to buy drinks for everybody in the bar), a habit of calling jackals "jackasses," asking what the difference is, nearly blowing himself up when he accidentally dynamites the entrance to Kharis' tomb, tries to copy a rock-swallowing trick that Solvani shows up and nearly chokes himself a couple of times in the process, and proves that he doesn't like to be left alone when something creepy is going on, running after Steve like a coward. One of the best moments with him is when Marta shows up at his and Steve's hotel room and, upon seeing such a lovely lady, doesn't hide the fact that he's not Steve... which gets him in hot water when she pulls that trick gun on him. You just have to love a guy who gets held up by a gun-brandishing woman while he's in nothing but his boxers and undershirt and his line to Steve, "Can a dame go crazy from being sawed in half too many times?" Despite all his goofiness and initial reservations about Steve's spending almost all their money on a broken vase, he sticks by him and everyone else very loyally when they get to the valley and ends up being a hero when he guns down Andoheb outside the temple. And like I said, he makes the comment of how Marta faints after Kharis has been taken care of... after which, he himself passes out.

Also memorable is the Great Solvani, aka Tim Sullivan (Cecil Kellaway), who's introduced in a comical way when he turns Babe's card trick back around on him when they first meet (he kindly pays for all the drinks so Babe doesn't have to). He proves to be anything but a mean-spirited conman, though, as he's actually a jolly magician who, like Steve and Babe, happens to be kind of down on his luck, as he must head back to America since his gigs have dried up. However, when they tell him of the possibility of finding Ananka's tomb and the money that could come from it, he decides to back the expedition and, very naively, gives them his money without finding where they're staying (he's also a tad bit drunk, which doesn't help matters). During the confrontation between him and Marta over the matter in their hotel room, it feels more like a mother chastising her little boy for being taken in, and when Solvani tries to stop Marta from going after Steve and Babe, he ends up stuck in one of his trick cabinets, only to get out. When they do reach the Hill of the Seven Jackals, his enthusiasm for it starts to dim when they don't find anything earth-shattering initially and he becomes fairly crestfallen when they find Kharis instead of the princess they were looking for. Truth be told, he doesn't have much of a role during the latter half of the film, with the only significant scene involving him being when he's almost killed strangled to death by Kharis, although in the end, he and everyone else reap the rewards of having actually found Ananka's tomb.

George Zucco was an actor who appeared in a good number of horror films throughout the 1940's and his role here as Andoheb, the new High Priest of Karnak, is one of his most prominent and memorable (he appears briefly in the next two, as well). He was one of those guys who could effortlessly combine smoothness and charm with an air of menace, as well as snobbishness in some cases. For instance, in the scene where he compliments Steve Banning on his accomplishments in the field of archeology, there is a subtle but definite air of contempt in the way he mentions how "arresting" his accomplishments are for someone so young, and when he proclaims the vase he's found to be a fake, he hints that Steve is the latest in a line of "enthusiastic but mistaken young archeologists" who've fallen for such scams. You can also sense the menace when he warns Steve of the past expeditions that have disappeared when they've journeyed to the Hill of the Seven Jackals, which he describes as the most dangerous place in all of Egypt. It is possible to read his attempts to dissuade them from mounting their expedition, going so far as to drop the vase and make Marta think that Steve and Babe are conmen, as a reluctance to kill anyone unnecessarily on his part, but when they do go there, he does not falter in his responsibility to punish those who would defile Princess Ananka's tomb. The way he gets Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) killed is a testament to how smooth and manipulative that he is. He appears to Petrie in Kharis' tomb, surprising him by his appearance, and after hinting that they should have never gone there, he decides to let him know the truth of what they've uncovered. He tricks Petrie into feeling Kharis' pulse through his wrist and then administers the tana leaf fluid necessary to allow him to move so the doctor can see the effects... before Kharis kills him. Andoheb proceeds to use Kharis' desire for the fluid as a means to get him to kill the others, placing a vial of it in their tents and other spots close to them. However, Kharis manages to kill only one other person, and when he randomly picks Marta up and takes her back to the temple, Andoheb takes the opportunity to act on a creepy desire for her that was very apparent when he previously talked to her about Steve and Babe. He prepares to inject himself and Marta with enough tana leaf fluid to make them immortal (remember that when we go into the other films), but he's stopped when he hears Babe outside the temple. Even though he takes a gun with him, Andoheb very stupidly tries to talk Babe down from shooting him, saying that if he kills him, he'll ensure that nobody will be able to control Kharis. His ploy doesn't work, and Andoheb is short several times before tumbling down the steps, asking the Egyptian gods to forgive him before he "expires."

There are a couple of other memorable bad guys in the film aside from Kharis. One is the original High Priest of Karnak (Eduardo Ciannelli), whom Andoheb takes over from. Even though he's only in the very beginning of the film, I always remember him because of his menacing voice (the film opens with him invoking a curse on anyone who defiles the temples of the gods), which well suits his telling the story of Kharis to Andoheb and how much tana leaf fluid must be given to him, his old, sickly appearance, down to his shaking arm, and how he refers to the howling jackals outside as "the children of the night" (even this virtually unrelated "sequel" can't shake The Mummy's connection to Dracula). The other one is this initially innocuous beggar (Sig Arno) who Steve and Babe run into at the bazaar but is shown to be quite a suspicious character in the cutaways to him apparently eavesdropping on the two of them when Steve finds the vase. After their meeting with Andoheb at the Cairo Museum, the beggar is revealed to be working as a spy for him, telling him of their discovery of the vase and of their intention to get the Great Solvani to finance the expedition (he also appears to tip someone at the restaurant where they meet Solvani to start a fight with them, although it seems to accomplish nothing). When they do head to the Hill of the Seven Jackals, the beggar continues to aid Andoheb by slipping vials of the tana leaf fluid into their tents and by trying to gun down Steve and Babe near the end, which results in him getting killed.

Kharis is definitely the more popular image of the Mummy than Boris Karloff's Imhotep but that doesn't mean he's the more menacing of the two. While I'm not the biggest fan of his movie, I can say that Imhotep was quite a threat with his considerable hypnotic and psychic powers, as well as his mere presence, which was intimidating; Kharis can't do much more than lumber around on only one good leg and use his one working arm to strangle people. It's obvious that he does have a lot of strength in that arm when he manages to get ahold of someone and, fortunately, unlike the sequels, the few people that he kills here are already cornered in some fashion and have no chance to get away, but it's still hard to take him seriously as a threat when he comes across as so slow and crippled. We're told that he'd really be dangerous if he manages to drink more fluid than that of nine brewed tana leaves, "a monster such as the world has never known" as Andoheb tells Marta and a "soulless demon with a desire to kill and kill" as the first High Priest told him, but what exactly that entails is never made clear. Andoheb hints at one point that more of the fluid would make Kharis' bum leg and arm usable, which I guess means he'd become faster and more agile which would probably tie into the original High Priest's warning of his becoming uncontrollable, as he would no longer be so helpless. Interesting idea, of Kharis bouncing off the walls and dodging bullets like a maniac (not that he'd need to), but it's hard for me to imagine since, one, we never see it in any of these movies, and two, even though bullets go right through him, Kharis is defeated by merely being set on fire. Speaking of the tana leaves, the rules of how much fluid needs to be given to Kharis and when is a bit confusing. The High Priest says that, during the cycle of the full moon, Andoheb must brew three tana leaves each night to keep Kharis' heart beating and nine to allow him to move around and kill intruders, which seems straightforward enough. However, throughout the climactic night of the film when he is resurrected (that's something else, by the way; this 66-minute movie is more than halfway over by the time Kharis starts doing stuff), he drinks from several vials that are said to contain fluid from nine leaves. So, do each of those vials contain nine leaves worth of fluid or is it nine leaves worth of fluid divided among them? I think it would have to be the latter, which probably means that it only takes a little bit of the fluid from nine leaves to get Kharis going to begin with and that he needs smaller, individual amounts to keep going, thus easier to control, but it's pretty shaky when you really think about it, since you wonder if a little bit from nine brewed leaves has enough "juice" to do the job. Moreover, near the end of the film, Andoheb tells Kharis that his ability to move is waning with the setting of the moon. So, he needs the full moon in conjunction with the fluid in order to move? Why not just go with the notion that they need to keep his heart beating during the cycle of the full moon and that they can get him moving whenever the need arises? Does that mean Andoheb would've been shit out of luck if the expedition arrived outside of the cycle of the full moon?

This time, the actor who had to endure Jack Pierce's painstaking makeup application was one who had no association with horror films: Tom Tyler, who was typically a western actor (given that he never played a monster or appeared in a horror film ever again, I think we can deduce that once was enough for him). Like Imhotep's completely mummified appearance at the beginning of the original film, as well as Pierce propensity for using "out of the kit" makeup techniques, it's possible that Tyler had to endure the same arduous process of being completely wrapped up in dusty bandages and having cotton glued to his face with spirit gum and clay put into his hair that Boris Karloff did, only for the entire filming. The result is a pretty cool-looking mummy, I must say, but I'm sure it was miserable to be in, although Tyler got a break from Pierce's facial makeup in distant shots, where he wore a simple rubber mask. Also, to make Kharis look creepier in the close-ups of his face, they blacked out Tyler's eyes and his mouth to give the impression of there nothing there but black voids. However, the technique isn't always successful, as there are many times, especially near the end, where you can see through the effect (they reuse the same shot, even though the background doesn't match the specific scene), and I think it would have been freakier if they'd kept Tyler's eyes the way they were (if you watch the film's theatrical trailer, you can still them and they're quite wild-looking).

I'm kind of cheating when I lump The Mummy in as a franchise with these four Kharis movies because, if you haven't figured it out already, The Mummy's Hand is more of a soft remake of that film than a sequel, particularly in the case of Kharis' backstory. Not only is it told to Andoheb by the High Priest in a manner very similar to how Imhotep showed Helen Grosvenor their past lives, right down to the pool of water the images appear in, and is almost exactly the same, save for the tana leaves substituting for the Scroll of Thoth, but they even went as far as to use footage from that flashback sequence, splicing in close-ups of Tom Tyler as the pre-mummified Kharis and new footage of his face being wrapped up where Boris Karloff was originally seen. In fact, I've heard that one of the deciding factors in casting Tyler as Kharis was that he looked enough like a younger version of Karloff to where they could get away with it (I don't see much of a resemblance myself but maybe you'll think otherwise). Really, the only reason why I grouped all of these films together is because they're often seen as one series, especially since they were all made as Universal, and to make it less complicated.

Its more famous predecessor isn't the only movie this film "borrows" from. While most of the film's sets and locations are average-looking, restaurant and hotel interiors, offices for the Cairo Museum (the establishing shot and location caption are also taken from The Mummy), and bazaars built on the Universal backlot, which also had a desert-like section they used for the Hill of the Seven Jackals and the surrounding area, the one truly remarkable piece of art direction is the enormous interior temple which also serves as Princess Ananka's tomb and where the climax takes place. If you think this place looks too much to be from a low-budget B-movie, you'd be right; it's actually taken from Green Hell, the next-to-last movie James Whale directed before retiring in 1941. That movie had been an expensive commercial failure for Universal and so, the studio decided to save money by using the set again for a much cheaper movie, which paid off as this film did quite well at the box-office. It's definitely a spectacular-looking set, both on the outside and the inside, especially the latter when you see it in a big wide-shot, with that enormous centerpiece idol with the two jackal-like heads sticking out, and, in spite of the fact that it was originally built to represent an Inca temple, manages to give this otherwise small movie a feeling of scale, which is more than can be said for the films that followed it (they don't even take place in Egypt!)

One of the major drawbacks of The Mummy's Hand is that, while it has interesting characters and a fairly fast pace that speeds through its short running time, it doesn't have much else. As I mentioned earlier, Kharis is not even resurrected until about 42 minutes in and even then, the scenes where he kills people aren't much to write home about, as all he's doing is choking people to death and those scenes certainly aren't intense or scary. And again, a slow, shambling mummy doesn't inspire much fear or excitement even when he's chasing or attacking someone. But, monsters aren't everything and a film can certainly get around a lackluster monster with a spooky atmosphere and tone... too bad this film doesn't have that. Obviously, since this was made on a B-level budget and schedule and meant to be nothing more than a fast-paced programmer, the filmmakers weren't interested in creating any kind of mood, as the very ordinarily shot, mood-less nighttime scenes at the Hill of the Seven Jackals show.

The climax itself is pretty pedestrian. Steve finds the secret passage leading from Kharis' tomb to the temple and attempts to untie Marta from the sacrificial slab Andoheb had tied her to, when Kharis appears, having walked through the passage himself. Marta tells Steve that he's after the tana leaf fluid, a vial of which Steve found in the tomb, and he smashes the vial on the floor, prompting Kharis to go after the vat of it that Andoheb had prepared to make himself and Marta immortal. Steve attempts to stop Kharis by shooting at him and when that doesn't even slow him down, he gets between the mummy and the vat while continuing to fire. Kharis grabs him by the neck and easily tosses him aside. Steve gets back and tries to hold Kharis back but gets tossed aside again, into an urn that his body weight smashes. Babe runs in through the entrance and sees Kharis grab the vat and raise it to his mouth, preparing to drink. He shoots it out of his hands and it spills across the floor, but the desperate mummy actually gets down and tries to lick it up. Steve, seeing his chance, smashes a torch over Kharis, setting him afire and defeating him.

The film's music is another borrowed element, although hardly unprecedented, as Universal often took to recycling music throughout their films during this period. Specifically, Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner's music for Son of Frankenstein is used, as it would be in many films around this time, especially the theme for the main titles (which becomes something of a leitmotif for the High Priests of Karnak), and the menacing and climactic music. The music fits the film well in the spots that it's used but, since it's not original, there's not much point in going into it since I've talked about it in other reviews.

The Mummy's Hand isn't likely to appear on anybody's list of the greatest horror films ever or even the greatest horror films of the 40's but it is, if nothing else, an enjoyable way to kill an hour. It has a cast of memorable and likable characters, for the most part, a quick pace to go along with its very short running time, shows off an impressive piece of art direction (even if it is borrowed from another movie) and some great makeup by Jack Pierce for Kharis, and, above everything else, is enjoyable in a B-movie way. While its low-budget and the quickie, programmer mentality behind it are plain as day, the music is completely recycled, and Kharis, who's not that threatening of a monster anyway, doesn't get to do much, which leads to a very standard climax, I would still say that it's worth watching at least once as a time-killer and if you're up for some enjoyable 40's schlock. It's certainly not as dire as some of the films up next.

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