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Thursday, 2 February 2017

THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940)

As part of Universal Studios’ Second Wave of horror film resurgence during WWII, all of their franchises were taken down, dusted off and re-activated. Eight years after its inception, The Mummy was prised out of its sarcophagus and sent out in fresh bandages to terrorise audiences in The Mummy’s Hand (1940). A creditable job was made of it, retaining the key elements of the original’s exotic chills and the co-opting of a fascinating mysterious mythology.

The chosen director was Christy Cabanne, a hired gun who could shoot fast as it were. Like William ‘One take’ Beaudine he was extremely prolific and would work with whomever he was assigned in any genre. (Both men would also direct Bela Lugosi – Cabanne on 1947’s The Scared to Death). Ever mindful of the bottom line, Universal would value his speedy delivery of their latest revival scripted by Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane.

The cast for The Mummy’s Hand is one of its chief strengths. We open by establishing the back-story of the villain in the capable form of George Zucco. He had a very profitable war-time film career especially in horror, starting out with the 1939 remakes of The Cat and the Canary and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Here he is the steely-eyed Andoheb, pledged to defend the resting place of Princess Ananka within Egypt’s Temple of Karnak, but not before its High Priest (Eduardo Cianelli) recounts to him the story of the more powerful protector he must facilitate. Kharis was the Princess’s forbidden lover who was buried alive for attempting to resurrect her from death. His character is essentially Boris Karloff’s Imhotep from The Mummy, with the added detail that the vital revivifying Tana leaves he tried to use were buried with him. (Footage from The Mummy was intercut with new sequences here). I suspect I’m not alone in always finding these ancient flashback scenes gave frissons of guilty pleasure somehow with their grisly ceremony of cutting out the victim’s tongue to spare the Gods his unholy curses and the slaying of the slaves who witnessed the events. 

Before he dies, the High Priest describes the crucial ritual of administering three brewed Tana leaves to Kharis to keep him alive, increasing to nine if the Temple is in danger of defilement by the unworthy, releasing “an uncontrollable demon who will kill – and kill!” Andohep accepts his duty with chilling resolve and after a nice nod to 1931’s Dracula, referring to the wolves as “Children of the night”, the High Priest passes the mantle to him and checks out.

The leading man up next is Dick Foran in the first of two successive sequels (like Zucco) as archaeologist Steve Banning – although strictly speaking the term sequel is misleading as this film effectively begins the franchise anew. Foran parlays his relaxed 6’ 2” frame from cowboy pictures well into a modern day horror action-man, beginning the tale as a fired archaeologist formerly with the Museum of Manhattan. He is accompanied by his rough diamond sidekick Babe, played with colourful swagger by Wallace Ford whom we last saw in Freaks (see my review of 22/2/2016). Steve buys a damaged pot whose hieroglyphics indicate the location of the fabled Temple of Karnak. For veracity he is led by the esteemed Dr Petrie (Chares Trowbridge) to none other than Zucco again, now known as Professor Andoheb, who dismisses the jar and visitors with precise menace. Steve is unfazed at this and is determined to somehow finance an expedition based on the evidence.

Fortunately the God of Finance smiles on Banning, crossing his path with touring magician the Great Solvani. This is a fitting superlative for marvellous Cecil Kellaway, last seen in plump avuncular form in 1940’s other Universal icon reactivator The Invisible Man Returns, as well as The House of Green Gables (see my reviews of both). He offers to fund the expedition, much to the chagrin of his smarter daughter Marta played by the lovely Peggy Moran who is warned by Andoheb that Steve and Babe are impostors.

The trip goes ahead and sure enough the team find the Hill of the Seven Jackals wherein lies no sign of the Princess’s tomb but instead the sarcophagus of Kharis. Although we know his origin, the expeditioners do not, but soon will to their trespassing cost. Once again Andoheb appears like a dark-eyed, brooding raven and brings a chill wind of foreboding as he invites Dr Petrie to feel Kharis’s hand. The Doctor is astounded by the lifelike pulse – “Like living tissue!” Nine leaves of Tana tea later and he’s feeling that supernatural heat fatally around his neck.  Andoheb exults at Kharis’s restoration with stone-cold fervour: “Not one of you who try to enter the tomb of Ananka will leave this valley alive…”

The Mummy himself is an excellent reworking of Karloff’s creation inhabited by Tom Tyler, former amateur weightlifting champion and future 1941 series Captain Marvel who was cast for a similar enough likeness to his predecessor. Universal’s resident make-up master Jack Pierce swathes him in a convincing bandaged form that accentuates his sharp facial features. The face is rendered more unsettling still by post-production blotting out his eyes into totally black pools, a simple yet disturbing effect (though mis-applied in wide shots). He moves with an awkward, inexorable shuffle, crippled in his left leg and right arm. A plot structural weakness is that we have to wait too long to see him - the third act in fact - however Kharis make his presence felt by murdering Ali, the teams’ guide and carrying off Marta.

The climactic face-off pitching Tomb Raider against protector takes place in the money shot of the production, the Temple of Karnak that houses Princess Ananka’s tomb. It is a striking set by art director Jack Otterson and set designer Russell A Gausman with a fine centrepiece of the aformentioned multi-headed Jackal fronted by a stone altar. There Andoheb aims to inject Marta with the Tana serum so the two of them will forever serve as guardians: “You’re beautiful, so beautiful. I’m going to make you immortal”. This job opportunity is rejected on her behalf by Babe shooting Andoheb, who appears to expire outside at the bottom of the temple steps. “Mighty Isis, forgive me…” he gasps. Meanwhile Steve grapples manfully with Kharis and manages to stop him drinking a world-dominating dose of Tana fluid by immolating him in the flames of the burner.


 The epilogue describes Princess Ananka’s stolen jewels being shipped to the Museum of Manhattan. This suggests grounds for retribution, though 1942’s direct sequel The Mummy’s Tomb would ignore those ransacked grounds and fashion a follow-up set decades later, reuniting some of the cast and boosting the line-up with Lon Chaney Jr. The franchise was now off and shambling for at least the near future…

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