Universal Monsters in review: The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
On today’s agenda, we bring you, The Mummy’s Hand (1940), directed by Christy Cabanne and produced by Ben Pivar. Another first screening for me on this journey through the classic Universal Monster pictures. Thus far, we’ve seen the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Wolfman, and even one of the famed Abbott and Costello flicks, as well as some of the lesser knowns, the sequels to the great pillars of horror. Last week, we had Dracula’s Daughter, which turned out to be a direct sequel from the original film. On this episode, we’ll take a closer look at a movie I doubt many have seen, unless they count themselves among the shuffling, perhaps even undead, prolific Universal aficionados. If you have, bravo. And I hope you enjoy the review. If you haven’t, well, read on and decide for yourself if this of many Universal Monster movies would be something you fancy yourself watching on a dark night during a thunder storm. The Mummy’s Hand was one of my personal picks when contacting fellow writers and bloggers to help with this monumental task of reviewing Universal’s macabre lexicon. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. It is strange for me to say, the Mummy is one of my favorite monsters, especially considering how most of my published work thus far has focused on creating my own Wolfman’s and Frankenstein’s (though as a side-note and shameless self promotion, stay tuned for later this year when one my stories with my very own version on the Mummy gets published, wink wink). Regardless, the story of the Mummy is fascinating, to me at least. And I’m thinking on the boundaries of the Boris Karloff version, the brooding Imhotep willing to suffer live burial and a cursed death for his betrothed Anck-su-namun. With today’s adaptation, The Mummy’s Hand shares many similar attributes equally as it likewise differs wildly.
Here’s a quick fire synopsis to get us all on the same page.
In Cairo, amateur wannabe archaeologist Steve Banning (played by the very stoic but still fantastic Dick Foran) discovers a vase at a local market with his good pal Babe (played by funny man Wallace Ford), which he believes could lead them to the ancient tomb of Princess Ananka. Steve contacts his colleague Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) who believes, like Steve, the vase is a map to the tomb of Ananka. However, unknown to Steve and Dr. Petrie, fellow professor of Cairo Museum Andoheb (played by the steely eyed George Zucco), who happens to also be the High Priest of Karnac, a cult order of priests who hold the secrets of Karas, a mummy (played by future spaghetti western star Tom Tyler) who guards Ananka’s tomb. He attempts to persuade them the vase is a fake. When that fails, throughout the movie, he does everything he can to thwart the excavation of the ancient crypt. However, upon receiving funds from magician Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) and his daughter, Marta (the famous Peggy Moran), Steve, his sidekick Babe, and the Solvanis, embark on an expedition to the grave site, where Karas awaits slumbering. Andoheb is then forced to summon the shambling corpse to keep the Hills of the Seven Jackals (or some such nonsense) and the Temple of Ananka safe from outside encroachment, because, as every fan of Mummy movies knows, while science may reveal some secrets, there are other truths which must forever remain unknown.
I’m not going to sugar coat my review here, and up front I want to be honest that I had some wild expectations when walking into this movie. Mostly because of my love for the Karloff version, and secondly because of my fascination with the mythos itself, and third, I’d heard or read somewhere the film was actually quite horrifying. And while I will not argue there are some rather dark and terrifying scenes, especially during close-ups of the Mummy when it looks as if the creature has hollowed out eyes, I’d say The Mummy’s Hand was far from being a true horror movie. If I had to categorize the film, it’d be right next to the Abbott and Costello pictures that would eventually release in the mid thru late 40s. The comedy, while at times actually humorous and well blended, did not seem to mesh well with the entire scope of the film. The relationship between Steve and Babe felt as if I was indeed watching an infant version of Bud and Lou. Perhaps, in retrospect, maybe my critique is due to my expectations, after all, the Karloff version had absolutely zero comedy and was altogether serious, due more or less to the decade of depression than anything else. Still, I found more things jarring then I did entertaining. Here are a few of my least favorite things about The Mummy’s Hand:
- Reboot. Yup, pretty much is. Sure, they changed the names, but the first scene backstory is pretty much a shot-for-shot of the story of Imhotep attempting to bring to life Anck-su-namun. Getting caught. And being buried alive. They simply replaced Karloff with Tyler. Some of the scenes actually look identical to the original. To me, this is lazy story telling.
- Full moon? What is the deal with everything involving a full moon with this movie? If I wanted a werewolf I’d watch something with Lon Chaney Jr. in it. This is the Mummy for crying out loud! And the moon is never really fully fleshed out, just given random references from the supporting cast, something about an elixir given to the “sleeping” mummy every full moon or something like that to keep him alive, or rather, undead. And then there was something about Jackals or whatever. And of course, who can forgive the Bela ripoff as the former high priest paraphrases Dracula with a “children of the night” quote. Ugh!
- Motivation. When writing characters, one must make them believable, the reader or audience must understand the motivation of the characters. They don’t have to agree with them, but the motivations must be plausible. I was actually able to follow along with The Mummy’s Hand through half of the movie. Yes, I get it. Steve got canned from the university and is looking prove himself as an budding archaeologist. Andoheb wants to protect the tomb in which the greedy men and woman are attempting to “steal the secrets,” and after watching them sledgehammer and manhandle their way into the tomb, I don’t blame the guy, seriously! Regardless, when the mummy starts taking them out, one by one, and we can certainty cheer during these brief moments of horror, the motivation of the mummy seems dull. The mummy obeys because it wants the elixir? Really, that’s what you’re going with? And what the heck is going on when the mummy kidnaps Marta, aka Peggy Moran? Okay, we can probably chock it up to a classic monster trope, but why, oh why is Andoheb suddenly attracted to her? He plans on making them both immortal, because, as he says, she is so beautiful. While the Elixir of Immortality is an interesting concept, it was very really played up enough in the movie for it to become a prime motivation for the story. It made zero sense.
- Babe straight up murderers an unarmed Andoheb and nothing is said about it or comes about.
- Category. I’m really not sure how to categorize this film. Is it a black comedy, is it horror, or is it something of a noir film as it seemed most of everyone was costumed in those sleek fedoras. Or maybe the film was a hybrid horror, comedy, spaghetti-western (the ending will explain this for you, six-shooters and all, and noting how pretty much the entire cast went on to make a dozen of those grainy wagon wheel movies).
Certainly, there was plenty wrong with The Mummy’s Hand. I had expected serious horror and got instead a strange brew (no pun intended) of dark comedy and noir-western. However, we cannot discredit the film as being both moderately entertaining and a member of the Universal Monster classics. Watching the film for a second time, I did everything I could to remove all expectation and truly found myself enjoying the movie more than during my first screening. Some of the issues cannot be ignored, but altogether The Mummy’s Hand was still a monster movie, and in of itself had inspired later monster pictures, including a very reminiscent 1959 Hammer film titled simple, The Mummy starring both Peter Crushing and Christopher Lee (but in all honesty, Hammer did it waaaaaay better). The comedy of Wallace Ford (also marvelous in Tod Browning’s Freaks) playing the part of Babe was fantastic, in its own right. Dick Foran as our leading man was…okay, he did seem to be a bit stoic, and as I understand it he returned to the Mummy lexicon for one more picture in The Mummy’s Tomb with Lon Chaney Jr. taking on the role as Mummy. Peggy Moran was, to be blunt, kind of a prune, yet surprisingly strong and willful, until the end of course when her character Marta falls into the inevitable monster movie trope for women, which sadly still seems to go on into modern horror movies today. What can we say about Tom Tyler, who donned the bandages of the Mummy? His actions were certainly creepy, but the character in itself was mute, in more ways than one—sort of betrothed just as the movie was.
My Rating: 2/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of terror. He grew up in the small town of Vinton, Virginia, but in 2001, left home to enlist in the U.S. Army. Following his third tour in Iraq, Thomas moved to Houston, Texas where he now lives with his beautiful bride and amazing daughter. Thomas attended night school, with a focus on creative writing and history. In 2014, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History from UHCL. Thomas blogs at machinemean[dot]org where he reviews movies, books, and other horror related topics.