The Mummy’s Hand (1940) **
Contrary to expectations, The Mummy’s Hand is not so much a sequel to 1932’s The Mummy as it is a re-working of the latter movie’s story for a younger or less thoughtful audience with a much shorter attention span. Like so many B-movies of the 1940’s, it makes the reasonable assumption that tedium can be all but eliminated from a given storyline by compressing the plot into a movie of less than 70 minutes’ running time, an approach that today’s filmmakers would do well to rediscover. And in that respect, at least, The Mummy’s Hand is successful. What prevents it from rising above the level of its dottering, flabby cousin from the 30’s is a combination of its dumbed-down script and that deadliest bane of the pre-60’s B-movie-- comic relief!
With only 67 minutes at their disposal, the filmmakers waste no time in setting the movie up. A fat man in a fez (George Zucco, from The Mad Ghoul and House of Frankenstein) sneaks into a large, dilapidated, Egyptian-looking edifice in the middle of the desert, and then goes downstairs to meet with a frail old man. This wheezing geezer is the current high priest of Karnack (which the screenwriter thinks is a deity, rather than a place), latest in a long line of men who have preserved the religion and occult knowledge of the ancient Egyptians in secret, using this undiscovered temple as their base of operations. The priest is dying, and he has summoned the fat man to take his place at the head of the cult. In so doing, the priest passes on his most closely guarded secret, that the temple was built inside the 3000-year-old tomb of the princess Anankha, who remains, with all her treasures, within its walls. It is to guard her otherwise undisturbed grave that the priests of Karnack have carried on the old ways over the centuries, a task in which they have enjoyed a most striking success. But in case the tomb should ever be discovered by outsiders, the priesthood has a secret weapon at its disposal to deal with whomever might come snooping around. In an unmarked grave only a few hundred yards away lies the mummy of Prince Kharis (B-western star Tom Tyler, in his only foray into the horror genre), Anankha’s lover, who was buried alive for the sacrilege of stealing a chest of magical tanna leaves from the neighborhood temple of Isis. The tea-like fluid brewed from these leaves has the power to raise the dead, and it was for this purpose that Kharis committed his crime-- he wanted to bring Anankha back to life. The tanna plant is now extinct, so the stolen leaves, which were buried with Kharis, are the only ones of their kind in the world. The priests of Karnack have been keeping Kharis in a state of suspended animation by dosing him with the brew of three leaves each night of the full moon. If Anankha’s grave is ever threatened with violation, the brew of nine leaves will bring the mummy to murderous life for use as a weapon against the interlopers. But, or so says the high priest, no more than nine leaves must ever be brewed at a time for the mummy, or he will become uncontrollable, and turn on his masters. Having revealed all this, the high priest dies, surrendering his office to the fat man.
Meanwhile, a young American archaeologist named Steve Banning (Dick Foran, of The Atomic Submarine and Horror Island) is in Cairo with his bumbling sidekick Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford, from Freaks and The Ape Man). Babe, in case you couldn’t tell from his name, is the dreaded comic relief-- basically, he’s a poor man’s Lou Costello, his clowning reigned in very slightly by the fact that this is supposed to be a horror movie. Banning and Jenson are almost broke, and their expedition to Egypt has thus far turned up nothing of value, either scientifically or financially speaking. But their luck seems to change when Banning spots an ancient urn in the bazaar, whose inscription claims to point the way to the lost tomb of Anankha. Banning spends most of their remaining money to purchase the urn, and then takes it to the museum to show it to his superiors, Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge, from Valley of the Zombies and the serial The Mysterious Dr. Satan) and Dr. Andoheb. Petrie is most impressed by Banning’s unexpected find, but Andoheb is not, tactlessly dismissing the urn as a forgery. But Andoheb is clearly not to be trusted because-- that’s right-- he’s the fat man from the opening scene! Andoheb tries his damnedest to stop Banning from going to look for Anankha’s grave, refusing to fund the expedition and abusively condemning the whole enterprise as spawned from the foolhardiness of youth and inexperience. But Banning is not a man to be intimidated in this way, and Petrie, for his part, agrees with him that the urn is probably authentic. So Banning and Petrie decide to go looking for the tomb on their own; all they need is a way to pay for the dig.
Enter the Great Solvani (Cecil Kellaway, whom we’ll be seeing again in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte). Solvani is a magician just finishing up a wholly unsuccessful engagement in Cairo. He meets Banning and Babe in a bar when Babe attempts to con him out of the price of a few drinks with a card trick, not realizing whom he’s dealing with. The topic of Anankha’s tomb comes up in conversation, and Banning is able to talk Solvani into funding the expedition in exchange for an even share of the proceeds. But a man in the bar turns out to be one of Andoheb’s agents, and he starts a brawl in the tavern in the hope of getting the archaeologists and their benefactor either killed or arrested, and then goes to tell his boss about Banning’s activities. Andoheb sneakily goes to Solvani’s daughter Marta (Horror Island’s Peggy Moran) with a warning that Banning is a swindler and a murderer, figuring that this bit of misinformation will succeed where his minion’s riot failed. Andoheb, however, never considered the possibility that Marta would go to Banning himself to get her father’s money back, and discover thereby that the archaeologist is on the level. Banning’s expedition sets off for the desert the next day.
They find something in the desert, alright, but it’s not quite what they were looking for. The unmarked tomb, its buried entrance sealed with a curse-bearing plaque, belongs not to Anankha, but to Kharis. (I can’t imagine how they could possibly find this grave and not the other. Kharis’s tomb was hidden under tons of sand, rock, and rubble, while Anankha’s is perched on a big, conspicuous hill, its entrance totally out in the open. All it’s missing is a giant lit-up sign reading “Welcome to Anankha’s Tomb, We Hope You Enjoy Your Visit!”) Even this degree of success, obviously, is too great for Andoheb’s comfort, and he soon arrives on the scene to revive Kharis and sic him on Banning and his colleagues. The last-minute subplot in which Andoheb tries to turn Marta into a living mummy comes completely without warning and is never explained in even the sketchiest terms.
The best thing about The Mummy’s Hand is its lack of pretense. This movie is perfectly content to be a simple, to-the-point time-waster, filling out the bottom half of a bill with some bigger, flashier film. It’s dumb but speedy, and often entertaining in its unambitious way. And unlike The Mummy, it actually has a mummy in it for more than one scene! On the other hand, Tyler’s zombie-like Kharis is far less interesting than Karloff’s immortal sorcerer Imhotep, and the magic used to bring him to life seems more medieval than Egyptian in character. Meanwhile, the fact that the flashback revealing Kharis’s backstory is comprised mainly of footage recycled from the corresponding sequence in The Mummy further underscores the not-always-flattering comparison between the two films. But the biggest problem is Wallace Ford’s goofball sidekick character. I will never understand why filmmakers used to feel compelled to shoehorn bad comedy into their movies, no matter what mood the films in question were designed to convey. It seems obvious to me that horror movies in particular ought not to be saddled with this burden under most circumstances, for the same reason that romantic musical comedies generally ought not to feature the sudden and unexpected rape of their heroines by white supremacist gang members. A movie as short as The Mummy’s Hand, especially, can ill afford such distractions. And yet here Babe Jenson is, cracking wise in a silly Old Brooklyn accent, “humorously” mispronouncing words, and fainting from fright at inopportune moments. It’s stupid, it’s unnecessary, and it leaves The Mummy’s Hand much weaker than it could have been.