Horror Is Universal: “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942)


It’s a hefty word, or at least it’s supposed to be. In today’s digital word, we’re more likely to see it tossed around as shorthand for “something I personally didn’t like.” But what does it really mean? When is a film really, truly unwatchable?

The problem is that “unwatchable” can mean a few different things, nor is it necessarily a permanent label. Something may be unwatchable in one context and watchable in a different context, i.e. the majority of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But there are a few common criteria we can use for this. The most straightforward one is being unwatchable on a technical level: something is so fundamentally wrong with the camerawork, the editing, the lighting, the sound or all of the above that it destroys the film. Slightly more nebulous is when a film is unwatchable by virtue of being so offensive or morally repugnant that you’re not comfortable viewing it even if it’s well-made. This is more difficult to pin down because people have different thresholds for this kind of thing, but something notably egregious (real animal death, for example) is more likely to get rejected by just about everyone.

My personal definition of “unwatchable” is a little bit different. It encompasses the first two interpretations, but as a rule of thumb it’s more general. For me, it’s actually rather simple: a film is unwatchable when it fails to be entertaining or enriching in any context. There’s no positive emotion or experience to be gained from it. You can’t make fun of it. You can’t enjoy it ironically. You don’t come away from it feeling like your time was rewarded. You watch it, and it just feels like a punishment.

I try not to throw the word “unwatchable” around lightly. But oh my god, does it accurately describe The Mummy’s Tomb.

The Plot: Thirty years have passed since the events of The Mummy’s Hand. Steve Banning (Dick Foran) is now a middle-aged, respected archaeologist living comfortably in the tiny New England town of Mapleton. He regales his adult son John (John Hubbard) and the rest of his family and friends with the tale of his extraordinary adventure in Egypt. But on the other side of the globe, trouble is brewing. The villainous Andoheb (George Zucco) secretly survived the last film, and so did the mummy Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr). Andoheb wants revenge on the whole Banning family for despoiling the tomb of Princess Ananka, so he arranges for Kharis to be shipped to America with Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), the new High Priest of Karnak. Kharis and his handler set up shop in Mapleton’s local cemetery, and it isn’t long before John Banning’s family and friends start getting mysteriously murdered all around him. Could the stories his father told him really be true? He must track down the killer if he hopes to save himself and his girlfriend Isobel (Elyse Knox) from the schemes of Mehemet Bey, who’s got his own ideas about ensuring the destruction of the Banning bloodline.

Right. Okay. Before we get into the full-fledged massacre, we need to do the usual background information. Our director is Harold Young, a guy who started out as a film editor and later transitioned to directing, making his debut with the 1934 adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel. The editor was apparently Milton Carruth of all people, whose work included All Quiet on The Western Front, Dracula, The Mummy and would later include Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. What his name is doing on this movie will likely be a riddle for the ages. And no, even he couldn’t save it.

Our cast is equally uninteresting, for the most part. Lon Chaney Jr was in this movie because he had just renewed his contract with Universal. Not that you can really tell it’s him, but we’ll get into that later. Foran, Ford and Zucco all return from the previous film, but their roles are little more than cameos. The one guy in the cast who’s kind of interesting to talk about is Turhan Bey, our new mummy wrangler. He was an Austrian actor of Turkish and Czech Jewish descent who emigrated to the US in the late 1930s. You probably haven’t heard of him, but by 1944 he was actually quite the star for Universal. Fun fact: in a 1995 interview, he said that The Mummy’s Tomb was his favorite of his filmography. Hopefully by the end of this article, that opinion will be as baffling to you as it was to me.

I really was not expecting the Mummy films to become my archenemy for this series, but but hey, 2020 has been full of surprises. But it’s not entirely accurate to condemn all the films as a group. My hatred is reserved solely for the Mummy sequels, which have been zero out of two so far on the “is this any good” question. It hasn’t been like this with the other major characters, either. The Frankenstein sequels range from passable to excellent, and even the worst one has some interesting ideas in there. Dracula’s Daughter was better than I expected. The Invisible Man Returns and The Invisible Woman are both fine, despite their connection to The Invisible Man being tenuous at best. But so far, efforts to expand The Mummy into a franchise have ended in disaster. All they manage to do is retain the flaws of the original film — mainly the unlikable protagonists and questionable attitude towards Egyptian culture — and none of its strengths like the creepy atmosphere, memorable scares and technical prowess. The Mummy’s Hand was a cringe-inducing mess that butchered the original film’s plot in its retelling, tried to throw elements of action and comedy into the mix and miserably failed at both. At the time, I declared it the worst film I’d reviewed for this series. But somehow, to my amazement and horror, its sequel manages to be even worse.

There are two things that happen in The Mummy’s Tomb early on which hint at the trainwreck you’re about to witness. The first thing is Dick Foran showing up onscreen wearing the worst old-age makeup this side of Prometheus, confirming that this film which very obviously takes place in 1942 is supposed to be set several decades after the film made two years before and also obviously set in the present day. Now for that, I’m willing to exhibit a slight suspension of disbelief (and by “that” I mean the time skip, not the makeup). But then the movie starts to play a Mummy’s Hand clip show recapping the events of the last film for us. And it keeps going.

And going.

And going.

By the time we’re finally back where we started, the flashback has lasted 10 to 12 minutes. Did I mention that this film is barely an hour long?

So at this point, we’re roughly 20% through the movie and all we’ve done is watch clips from another bad movie. That’s a bad way to start, and it doesn’t get any more competent from there.

Do you remember the climax of The Mummy’s Hand and how it was just Kharis lumbering from one scene to the next killing off the supporting cast one at a time? The Mummy’s Tomb is that stretched out to a whole hour. It’s one of the most boring, repetitive films I’ve ever seen. Mehmet Bey sends Kharis out to kill someone, Kharis goes and does it, he comes back and becomes dormant until the next night. Rinse and repeat until our protagonist finally drops the idiot ball long enough to realize what’s going on. There’s no mystery or wonder to it, nor anything frightening. Mostly, it just stops and makes you ask stupid questions that the film doesn’t bother to answer. The villains’ plan makes no sense. Why does Mehmet Bey only send Kharis to kill one person per night when he could very easily strike down all of his targets in one fell swoop, as he did in the last film? Which you showed us? I know the actual answer is “Because then we wouldn’t have a movie,” but I want the in-universe explanation. Which, of course, doesn’t exist.

The stupid tana leaves are back, too. Their mechanics are still borderline incomprehensible, but at least the filmmakers didn’t drastically change the rules on us. They do say that the nine-leaf potion is to give the mummy “motivation” as opposed to just movement, though, which is kind of funny. A few things in this movie are kind of funny, not that they’re meant to be. Like the idea of an honest-to-god mummy invading this rustic New England town.

I’m not completely sure why the decision was made to relocate Kharis to America for this film, though I suspect it may have been an effort to keep the budget low by avoiding the need for Egyptian sets. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t do the film or the character any favors. A few shots do look suitably Gothic, but the novelty of the juxtaposition quickly wears off. And the sets we do get aren’t that great, either: you can see that several of the cemetery headstones are just flat cutouts.

The acting is astoundingly bad from just about everyone. Elyse Knox, who plays the hero’s love interest, is particularly wooden. I think Turhan Bey and George Zucco were the only ones with any sort of life to their performances at all. Zucco in particular seems to realize what kind of movie he’s in, and he spends his brief moments of screentime hamming it up as he gives instructions to Mehmet Bey.

But I think the biggest disappointment is Lon Chaney Jr. Or rather, the fact that this film so blatantly wastes him on a role that could be played by a crash test dummy wrapped in toilet paper. There is nothing to Kharis whatsoever. This was a problem in the previous film as well, but it’s an even bigger problem here. Imhotep was a good character because he had motivation and autonomy and a compelling goal to carry out. Kharis is…well, he’s a tool. Literally.

Mehmet Bey, the other character who gets a lot of screentime, isn’t much better. Following the logic established by The Mummy’s Hand, this is the character that should inherit the plotting/scheming/manipulation side of Imhotep, much like Andoheb did. But Turhan Bey doesn’t get to do that. For the most part, all his scenes are either alone or shared with Kharis. He doesn’t really interact with anyone other than Andoheb and a few supporting characters. I don’t think he means John Banning until the climax. So he never has the chance to exhibit the subtle manipulation tactics we saw Imhotep and Andoheb do. He’s also kind of stupid, as we see him demonstrate multiple times. There’s his weird plan to have Kharis not kill his enemies all at once, he incriminates himself in the murders by getting too friendly with a side character, and — this part is notable because Andoheb specifically warns him against it — he makes the mistake of going after the hero’s girl.

There’s even less of a reason for that plot point to happen this time around. At least Andoheb had one conversation with Marta before deciding to kidnap her. Turhan Bey just sees Isobel from a distance and decides that he has to have her. I don’t know if the filmmakers meant for this to have some racist implications, but it definitely smacks of the whole “this foreign menace is coming to terrorize our lands and steal our women and only our conventional hero can stop him!” thing. It’s not as blatant as it is in, say, the book version of Dracula, but I think it’s still there a bit.

Now, all of this stuff is bad. But that’s not what sends this movie over the edge for me. What’s the thing that makes it truly unwatchable? It’s perhaps the most mean-spirited Universal Horror movie I’ve looked at so far. Yes, even more than The Ghost of Frankenstein. Because while that movie had a mean-spirited ending, it wasn’t like that all the way through. Meanwhile, The Mummy’s Hand was clearly aiming for this sense of fun and adventure, as badly as that turned out. Mummy’s Tomb, on the other hand, is gloomy and unpleasant nearly all the way through. It’s just people being murdered for an hour. That’s not to say you can’t get a perfectly good film out of people being murdered — that’s the basic premise of every slasher film, after all. What makes Mummy’s Tomb so fundamentally bad is that it gives you little to no suspense and no reason to care about what’s happening. The only characters that we’re familiar with disappear from the story early on, and we don’t have any good characters remaining to fill the void. It’s difficult to feel shock or fear when all the movie gives you is bland cannon fodder getting killed offscreen. If we had a more interesting villain, we might have something to latch on to, but there’s absolutely nothing interesting about Kharis.

And therein lies the fundamental problem with the Mummy sequels. The success of the other Universal Horror properties lies with striking, engaging lead characters. They look great visually, but they also have charisma and personality that makes you want to follow their story. The Mummy worked well despite its flaws because we had Imhotep at the center of the film, and Imhotep was a compelling character. Replacing him with Kharis is the decision that killed both of these sequels, I think. With Kharis, you get the cool image of the bandage-wrapped mummy, but you have no substance beneath it. A character that began as this powerful, threatening sorcerer who was sympathetic despite his monstrosity has been reduced to this mute husk who isn’t even in control of his own actions. That’s a poor excuse for a movie monster, and focusing on it makes for a poor excuse of a film.

The Mummy’s Tomb is awful on every level. Any mild intrigue or amusement that The Mummy’s Hand might have offered up is done away with here, resulting in a boring and often cruel story with no suspense or meaning. The acting is largely dismal, and the few good actors who appear are thoroughly wasted. Having Lon Chaney Jr. play Kharis is an especially blatant misuse of a talented performer. On one level, the film serves as an example of why great characters are so important to these movies. By gutting the best aspects of Imhotep in order to create Kharis, the Mummy sequels lose their direction and their biggest strength, and this film in particular suffers from that absence. I call it unwatchable because there’s nothing to enjoy or latch on to here. It’s just a dismal slog through a sea of bad creative decisions. If any of these Universal films can be used as an example of how not to create a horror story, this is it.

Final Rating:

Rating: 0.5 out of 5.

We still haven’t gotten to the worst part, which is that there are still two more solo Mummy films ahead of us in the Classic Era. What fresh hell awaits us there? Only time will tell. But those are safely in the future for now. In the new year, we’re going to start things off with a film that, in hindsight, is another big landmark for Universal Horror. By now we’ve got several iconic figures with stories and legacies of their own, each one a different series. But what if those multiple paths were to finally cross?

UP NEXT: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

2 thoughts on “Horror Is Universal: “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.