Horror Is Universal: “The Mummy’s Hand” (1940)

Okay, how do I ease you guys into this…?

I haven’t done an exact tally on how many views each article in this series has, but I have noticed that people seem to keep coming back to my article on Werewolf of London. I couldn’t tell you why. Perhaps it’s because it’s a more obscure film, and therefore someone talking about it is more of a novelty. Or maybe it’s because I tend to get more entertaining when I’m discussing something I really don’t like, and Werewolf of London is the only Universal Horror film I really haven’t liked so far.

Until now.

Look, if my articles on the bad movies getting more views is gonna be a thing, then I fully expect this one to be among the most popular installments of the whole series, because this is easily the worst Universal Horror movie I’ve watched so far. Calling it Universal Horror feels like a slight against the rest of Universal Horror. It’s that bad, folks.

So far, we’ve watched four of the six films that introduce our leading monsters. And after some thought, my personal opinion is that The Mummy is the weakest of those four. That said, The Mummy is still a really good film. The tone and atmosphere are cool, the camerawork is innovative, that opening scare is a work of genius, and the two lead performances are strong enough to overcome the flawed script. Even the flaws and questionable decisions in the script add something essential to the film, making discussion and analysis of it that much richer: what is the film trying to say, and what messages is it perhaps conveying unintentionally? It’s a well-crafted, entertaining film with deeper meaning, and it’s well worth your time.

Now we’re going to talk about The Mummy’s Hand, which is none of those things.

The Plot: Hidden in the Egyptian desert is the Hill of the Seven Jackals, final resting place of the ancient princess Ananka. It’s also the tomb/prison of Kharis (Tom Tyler), a priest who loved Ananka and tried using forbidden magic — the mysterious, life-giving tana leaves — to resurrect her. As punishment for his crime, he was buried alive with his tongue cut out. But he never truly died: a secret order of mystics, led by a man called Andoheb (George Zucco), has been using the tana leaves to keep the mummy’s heart beating for thousands of years. Should the tomb of Ananka ever be threatened by despoilers, it is Andoheb’s duty to resurrect Kharis outright and use him to protect the princess. Meanwhile, in the present day, an American archaeologist named Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his partner Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford) stumble across an old vase that provides a clue to the location of Ananka’s tomb. With help from a show magician called Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) and his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), they scrape together enough funds for an expedition, and the four of them head out to the Hill of the Seven Jackals. Little do they know that Andoheb has been working against them every step of the way, and that he’s ready to unleash the wrath of Kharis on the unsuspecting expedition…

In May 1940, following the success of Son of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man Returns, Universal decided it might as well try its luck with reviving yet another established horror character from its backlog. For whatever reason, however, they decided not to make The Mummy’s Hand a true follow-up to its predecessor. As you’ve probably guessed, this is a loose remake of The Mummy rather than a sequel. Imhotep has been swapped out with the new character of Kharis — to an extent, as I’ll discuss later — and the backstory remains mostly the same. So much the same that the opening exposition sequence uses stock footage from The Mummy, as you can see from the multiple shots that obviously feature Boris Karloff instead of Tom Tyler. Other reused elements here include the musical score from Son of Frankenstein and sets from the James Whale adventure movie Green Hell, which proves I was not crazy for thinking that some of the exteriors looked way more like South America than Egypt. Lots of things getting reused here.

Not many familiar faces in the cast or crew this time. The director, Christy Cabanne, had a long career, but little of his work is remembered today. Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane are credited for the story and screenplay, and I can’t find much information on either of them. The information about the cast is a little more interesting. Wallace Ford, for example, was an accomplished stage and screen actor who worked with Alfred Hitchcock in Shadow of a Doubt and Spellbound. George Zucco played Professor Moriarty in 1939’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes opposite Basil Rathbone, and we’ll see him again in future Universal Horror projects. We saw Cecil Kellaway in The Invisible Man Returns as Inspector Sampson, and he would get two Oscar nominations later in his career. Our mummy, Tom Tyler, was the star of many Western serials during the 20s and 30s, and he had small roles in Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath. And in 1941, he would star in the 12-part serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel, playing the superhero that we know today as DC’s Shazam. Yes, Marvel and DC have both had characters named Captain Marvel. I don’t know how anyone keeps it all straight. And yes, I’m harping on all this because it’s way more interesting than anything in The Mummy’s Hand.

We tend to think of the horror and science-fiction films from the first half of the twentieth century as being “B-movies”: cheaper, lesser, not the main priority of the studios putting them out. Because of that, it’s easy to forget that most of the films we’ve looked at so far were not considered B-movies at the time. Quite the opposite, in fact: these were major releases for Universal, with a lot of money and talent behind them. In fact, you know what I’m going to do to help make this point? I’m going to use math. Do you realize how serious things have to get for me to use math?

According to Joel W. Finler’s 2003 book The Hollywood Story, the average budget of an American feature film was $375,000 in 1930 and $400,000 in 1940. Now let’s look at the films we’ve covered so far. Counting only the English-language productions made between 1930 and 1939, we get eight films. The total budget for all these films, taken from available sources, is $2,417,231.20. If we divide that number by 8 and round the result to the second decimal place, we end up with $302,153.90. For the sake of clarity and brevity, we’ll just go ahead and round that down to $302,000. That’s a very simple calculation and doesn’t account for all the horror movies Universal released during this period, but it will do for now. So while the average budget of a Universal Horror movie in the 30s was somewhat below the average film budget at the time, it was still pretty high. My point is that the studio was not just churning these things out for as little money as possible: they were putting in time and effort.

I have laid this groundwork for us so you can partially understand how The Mummy’s Hand is so different from what we’ve seen so far. It is through and through a B-movie. And I’m not just saying that because of the budget, either (although at $80,000, it is by far the cheapest of the Universal Horror movies up to this point). See, I don’t think a B-movie is automatically defined by how much it costs. It’s not even about quality. B-movies are about a mindset. And that mindset is “Make as much as you can out of as little as possible.” B-movies have to be thrifty and clever, because they’re not working with all the resources that a major production would have. So you usually have something pretty simple or limited in scope, something that doesn’t take a whole lot of time to film. You make it quick and cheap, you put it in theaters and you hope it turns a profit.

This is not an inherently bad idea. In fact, it can be the gateway to some really creative and memorable storytelling, especially when you have a director who knows how to work with what they’ve got. Night of the Living Dead, a horror film so great that it created an entire subgenre? That’s a B-movie. In fact, lots of the horror and sci-fi classics from the twentieth century were B-movies, especially once we get into the 50s and 60s. And successful directors like Jonathan Demme and Francis Ford Coppola got their start working on B-movies. At their best, B-movies can be the birthplace of some great talent and ideas. But that’s reliant on one important thing, which is passion. If you’re only making a movie to make some money, you won’t make a great movie. You have to have some measure of ambition and believe in the value of the story you are telling. If you don’t, that will show in the final product. As demonstrated by The Mummy’s Hand.

This is the first Universal Horror movie where it legitimately feels like no one involved with the movie cared about what they were making. It’s got a paint-by-numbers plot that grabs ideas from its predecessor but doesn’t use them in any meaningful way. The script is muddled, trite and not even trying to be scary. The directing is uninspired. The characters are flat and unremarkable, and any moments of quality that the actors manage to provide is from their own talent and not the material they’re given. And worst of all, it’s a movie that makes lofty promises it can’t deliver on.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The best way to show this, I think, is to simply go through the major creative decisions + story beats and break them down one at a time.

First, let’s look at the opening and the backstory of Kharis, reinterpreted from the story of Imhotep. As I mentioned before, this is largely just cut-and-pasted from The Mummy, but this version makes two important changes to the narrative. There is no Scroll of Thoth anymore, and we instead have Kharis trying to resurrect his princess with these magical plants called tana leaves. The second major change is that once Kharis is buried alive, he is taken to the mountain where the princess’s tomb is and placed in a secret room on the opposite side of said mountain, with a passageway running between the tombs. The purpose of this, we are told, is so Kharis can guard the tomb.

Okay. So. As you may recall from The Mummy, the Scroll of Thoth was pretty easy to understand. You read the magic words on the scroll, and poof, the dead come back to life. You get an immediate grasp of what it does and how it works, as you should with any plot device. The instructions for using the tana leaves, on the other hand, make the stupid instructions for the mariphasa in Werewolf of London look reasonable by comparison.

So the high priest of this secret society has a whole bunch of these leaves in a chest, and he’s telling Andoheb how to use them. Every day, someone has to take only three leaves and brew a potion with them, and you give that potion to Kharis, and that’s what keeps his heart beating. Like he’s a Tamagotchi or something. Now if you want to actually bring him to life and make him shuffle around to do your dark bidding, you have to take nine of the tana leaves and feed him a potion brewed with those. But whatever you do, for the love of God do not ever feed him a potion made with more than nine leaves. Because, and I quote: “Should Kharis ever obtain a large amount of the fluid, he would become an uncontrollable monster, a soulless demon with the desire to kill and kill.” I assume there’s also something in there about not getting him wet or feeding him after midnight.

Not only is this way too much information right up front, it’s just way too much info, period. Nobody cares about minute details like how many leaves you have to use for this potion in different circumstances — we didn’t need any of that in the original film. Even this movie doesn’t need any of that, because it never really comes into play after this scene. They pretty much ignore it all, including the part where something terrible will happen if you screw up the rules. Oh, you thought that bit about Kharis potentially becoming an unstoppable monster was gonna lead to some dramatic twist in the climax? Nope! It’s never relevant! I’m not even sure what they would do with that idea, considering Kharis is already a meat puppet for the bad guys who does nothing but kill people.

What is it with bad horror movies and weirdly specific rules revolving around plants? If I watch all of these, am I gonna get a letter in the mail telling me I’m now licensed to practice occult botany?

Huh. Apparently you do.

Then there’s the bit about Kharis being made to guard the princess. This isn’t really a bad idea on the surface: a good story could potentially use it to give the mummy more characterization, make him more sympathetic, or even make a point about graverobbing vs. respectful archaeology. The problem is that the script pastes this detail into the Imhotep backstory without any regards for how it changes the implications of that story. See, Imhotep/Kharis was punished for the crime of sacrilege, and it was meant to damn his soul as well as his body. His offense is regarded as serious and unforgivable, so why does that mean he now gets to guard the tomb of an important royal figure? Especially when his crime involved trying to use forbidden magic to resurrect that person. You’d think it would be a better idea to keep Kharis as far away from the princess as possible. And if Kharis loved the princess, which we are told he does, then is getting to watch over her for thousands of years really that much of a punishment?

It would be interesting if we could maybe hear from Kharis about all this, but he has no voice of his own. Literally, since the writers have him get his tongue cut out so they don’t have to make up dialogue for him. Worse still, he’s really kind of an afterthought in this whole story: after that opening, he doesn’t reappear until almost the end of the film.

The Mummy’s Hand is only 66 minutes long, and somehow it still manages to feel like it’s been stretched out too thin. The first two-thirds in particular are a dismal experience, with the threadbare plot frequently being interrupted for obnoxious comedy sequences. Calling this a horror film is a misnomer because it’s not even trying to horrify you. It seems to be going for a comedy/adventure serial vibe, but it’s neither of those things. The main plot of this movie, when you get right down to it, is characters trying to finance an archaeological expedition. That’s it. Not really about planning the expedition or traveling out to the dig site or even what they find when they get there. It’s just these two guys looking for someone to invest in this expedition they’ve decided to do because of a random pot they found. That is what takes up the majority of the runtime, and it’s only in the last twenty minutes that the writers are like “Oh, yeah, we should probably do something with that living mummy guy we established at the beginning.” Riveting.

The characters here range from “bland oatmeal in human form” to “please just die so I don’t have to look at you anymore.” I don’t hate Steve Banning, but that’s only because there’s nothing there to hate. He’s like if you took Indiana Jones and surgically removed all the charm and personality. Basically, the best thing I can say about him is that he’s not wholly contemptible like Frank Whemple was in the original film. Babe Jenson, on the other hand, is insufferable. When crafting his dialogue, the writers seem to have forgotten that “comic relief sidekick” is not synonymous with “unfunny little creep.” So he runs around doing all manner of bad schtick. He makes derogatory comments about women. He carries around a little hula doll that he calls Poopsie and talks to all the time. At one point he pretends to choke on a rock, just for his own amusement. Everything he does in the movie is like this. And the worst part? He survives.

The other comic relief character in the film — because we needed more than one, apparently — is Solvani. He’s not as immediately hateable as Babe, but his antics are no less obnoxious. His whole deal is that he’s a bumbling circus magician, so there’s this running gag where he’s always trying to do tricks for people and pulling out weird props at inopportune times. Like, at one point he’s looking for a piece of paper in his coat and he keeps pulling out colored handkerchiefs, oversized playing cards, etc. This happens way too often, and it goes on for way too long whenever it does. Any comedic potential it might have had gets sapped away by the second or third time he does the joke. Among our “heroes,” the character who ends up being the most appealing is Marta. Not that there’s really much going on with Marta: the scope of her personality and role can be summed up as “capable no-nonsense woman who still gets rendered helpless by the end because we need a damsel in distress.” But some of the stuff she does prior to ending up in distress are kind of entertaining. When she’s led to believe that Steve and Babe are con men who just swindled her father out of the last of his money, she shows up at their hotel room to hold them at gunpoint with a prop revolver. That was kind of funny.

The only characters who are sort of interesting to talk about are Andoheb and Kharis, mainly the former. I said earlier that this retelling of The Mummy writes out Imhotep, but that’s not completely accurate to say. What’s really going on is that Imhotep has been split into two characters. Kharis embodies Imhotep as we first see him, the silent and shuffling mummy who intimidates through his appearance. Andoheb, meanwhile, embodies the scheming and subtle manipulation that Imhotep uses in his Ardeth Bey persona. The most fascinating scenes in the film are when he’s trying to block the archaeologists’ path without revealing his own secret. When Steve first shows up at the local museum with the vase indicating the location of Ananka’s tomb, Andoheb tries to persuade him that the vase is a forgery. When that doesn’t work, he denies them funding for their expedition. When they get their funding through Solvani, he visits Marta and plants the idea about Steve and Babe being swindlers. He’s not using any magic at this point, just his own intelligence and connections. He comes off as the most sensible character in the whole story, which means you’re kind of rooting for him a little bit. But that, like everything, starts to fall apart in the last twenty minutes of the film.

Once Kharis is revived with the nine-leaf potion, The Mummy’s Hand stops being a bland, repetitive comedy and starts being a bland, repetitive slasher movie. Andoheb commands Kharis to kill the members of the expedition, but like…in the form of a scavenger hunt. He’s planted these vials of the potion all around the archaeologists’ camp, and Kharis has to shuffle around looking with them, with the added stipulation of “Wherever you find the fluid, you will kill.” This does not seem like the most effective way to murder a bunch of people. It also introduces the new idea that Kharis has this addiction-like relationship with the potion and he’ll do anything to get more of it. This wasn’t remotely hinted at before, but now the whole climax of the movie hinges on it because he’ll become a monster if he drinks any more of the potion than he already has? Even though this contradicts what the exposition said before, which is that you can’t feed him a potion brewed with more than nine leaves? And that this now makes the plan of “leave the potion bottles for Kharis to find” really f***ing dangerous? I just…I just can’t with this.

So the third act of the movie goes like this: one of Andoheb’s minions plants the potion bottle in someone’s tent, Kharis comes in, Kharis drinks the potion and strangles whoever happens to be in the tent, repeat until the cast is sufficiently whittled down. Eventually it’s just our two archaeologists and Marta who are left alive. Solvani did survive Kharis’s attack, but this isn’t made clear until he turns back up at the very end of the film. So for all intents and purposes, he’s out. Kharis then kidnaps Marta instead of killing her. Why? Because offscreen, Andoheb apparently decided he’s in love with Marta and wants to make her his immortal high priestess. It’s a really slipshod way of trying to create circumstances similar to the climax of the original film, despite those circumstances not being compatible with what the writers have established so far. Marta has no connection to the princess, nor does she have any solid connection to Andoheb. They’ve spoken to each other once before this scene, and Andoheb showed zero indication of being romantically interested in her. It’s honestly kind of infuriating in how blatantly lazy it is.

So then Steve runs in to save Marta and fight the bad guys. Andoheb pulls out a gun, which is kind of funny because an all-powerful wizard dealing with an enemy by pulling out a gun is inherently funny. Andoheb then gets shot and killed by Babe — the ultimate indignity — and Steve kills Kharis by lighting him on fire while he’s on the ground trying to lap up the spilled potion.

And that’s about it, really. Aside from the ten-second epilogue where we see that the main charactesr are all living happily ever after and going back to America with all the stuff from Ananka’s tomb. We get one more joke at an unseen character’s expense, and then fade to black.

…You know that scene in The Princess Bride where Count Rugen has the weird life-sucking machine and he uses it on Westley and then he’s like “I have just removed an hour of your life, how do you feel?”

Why do I bring that up? Oh, no reason.

I don’t want to leave this on a wholly downbeat note, nor do I want to act like there’s only bad stuff in this movie. As badly as the characters are written, the acting isn’t outright terrible. It’s pretty much George Zucco’s movie, and I think he might have known that since he’s got the most life to him. And though the film doesn’t use Kharis that much, he looks pretty cool when he finally appears. Jack Pierce is handling the makeup again, creating an elaborate getup similar to how Imhotep appeared at the start of the original film. And we get to see more of that makeup job on display this time around, which is appreciated. The film also does a special effect to black out Kharis’s eyes, as you can see in one of the still above, and the result is actually kind of creepy. It’s got nothing on Boris Karloff’s famous death stare, but it’s the closest that this movie gets to a frightening moment.

But overall, the best I can say about Mummy’s Hand is that it’s not flat-out unwatchable. Look, I’ve seen movies that are unwatchable, whether it’s through technical incompetence or simply being repulsive to the viewer. This doesn’t check either of those boxes. But it lacks any kind of life or identity of its own. It’s not good enough to be watched unironically, but it’s not bad enough to be entertaining in how bad it is. It just sort of languishes in mediocrity. You may disagree with me, and that’s fine. I know I’m in the minority for hating the movie this much: if you look at reviews from the time and from now, most people seem to think it’s okay. But something about it really struck a nerve with me. It feels like a movie that doesn’t believe in itself, a movie that knows it’s not worth watching but wants to trick you into watching it. And that might be its biggest sin of all.

The Mummy’s Hand is the worst kind of B-movie: the kind with no passion or ambition behind it. Eager to capitalize on the horror revival started by Son of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man Returns, it takes the building blocks of The Mummy and cobbles them together to make an inferior product. Plagued with muddled worldbuilding and a generic plot, tries to capture the fun of an adventure serial and the spooks of 1930s horror, but it fails on both counts. The comedy is never funny, and only rarely do the scares land. The actors feel constrained by their underdeveloped characters, and no one really makes that strong an impression. By the time the movie remembers that audiences want to see the mummy, it feels like too little too late. It’s a dull, forgettable viewing experience that leaves you disappointed afterward. Just rewatch The Mummy instead. Or watch this with Werewolf of London, if you want a “Weird Plants in Bad Horror Movies” double feature. But maybe put Werewolf of London on after this so you have something to look forward to.

Final Rating:

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Alright, 1940 is tied so far. One good Universal Horror movie and one bad. Our next film will be the tiebreaker. Who’s gonna get the best two out of three?

UP NEXT: The Invisible Woman (1940)

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