Tuesday, October 04, 2011

“Hey Steve, can a woman go nuts from getting sawed in half too many times?”

It was almost 10 years before Universal revisited the Mummy franchise, but revisit they did in 1940, producing The Mummy’s Hand, which was more of a reboot since it completely did away with the Imhotep plotline. Sort of. Actually, quite a lot of the movie has changed, going for a more pulpy feel to the proceedings than the eldritch tone of the original. Is that a good thing? We shall see.

Once more we begin in Egypt, only this time our protagonists are Steve Banning, a down-on-his-luck archeologist trying to make a big discovery, and his best buddy, Babe Jenson. In a bazaar they find a piece of pottery clueing them in to the location of the Tomb of Princess Ananka, which is somewhere in the Hill of the Seven Jackals. Unfortunately, the ancient line of the Priests of Karnak are the caretakers of said tomb, and their sacred duty is to ensure the tomb is undisturbed. Banning and Jenson finally get funding, in the form of an eccentric American magician and his beautiful daughter, and they set out for the Hill with another archeologist in tow. To defend the Tomb of Ananka, the Priest of Karnak awakens the ancient mummy Kharis to seek out and destroy the would-be defilers.

Steve Banning: Dick Foran is our hero, and is a fairly standard one, albeit more proactive than usual. A disgraced archeologist trying to make enough scratch to go home to New York, its his idea to go digging in the desert when he learns of the Valley of the Seven Jackals, its his idea to get funding, and so on. He’s all about going off on an ADVENTURE! Which makes him reasonably likable.

Babe Jenson: Wallace Ford is Banning’s sarcastic, very-much-a-New-Yorker sidekick. He provides a lot of the comic relief and a hefty dose of skepticism towards the supernatural. He’s also reasonably competent in a lot of things, like marksmanship, when it counts.

Dr. Petrie: Charles Trowbridge plays the academic who believes in Banning’s mission. He goes along to provide added academic support, and someone for the mummy to kill.

The Great Solvani: Cecil Kelloway plays the traveling magician who instead of using his money to get back home, invests in the expedition because he thinks it’ll be fun. He provides the rest of the comic relief as he’s able to out con Babe in a few bar tricks when they meet.

Marta Solvani: Peggy Moran is Solvani’s much more level-headed daughter and at first tries to get the money her father invested back by confronting Babe with a (trick) revolver. Naturally, she becomes Banning’s love interest.

Professor/High Priest Andoheb: George Zucco! In a fez! He’s “Egyptian” in this and while a respected scientist, he is also the new High Priest of Karnak, tasked with protecting the tomb from defilers. Eventually sees Marta and decides that he’ll make her and himself immortal through some kind of ritual.

Kharis: Tom Tyler plays the title character, and through a backstory that heavily recycles footage from the last mummy movie, is changed around that Ananka was the princess who died prematurely and whom he tried to revive by stealing, not the Scroll of Thoth, but the forbidden tana leaves. He was caught and mummified alive, but with the added feature of having his tongue cut out, so he’ll never speak any lines. Anyway, a tea brewed from the tana leaves has kept him sort of alive/undead all these centuries. 3 leaves will keep him alive, and 9 leaves will give him mobility. Any more than 9 leaves and that’s going to be a problem. Still, Kharis is a pretty good monster, despite being a mute, undead errand boy who’s whole shtick involves strangling his victims to death.

Directed by Christy Cabanne, the movie lacks the artistic touches that Karl Freund brought to the table. Instead, this film is competently shot with some nice set design, which isn’t a bad thing. What is kind of a bad thing is the rather blatant recycling of footage from the first mummy movie, only with Tom Tyler inserted into scenes where Boris Karloff’s face was visible. On the one hand, yes it makes sense, since its not Imhotep this time, but on the other it is a pretty blatant way to recycle footage and plot details whole cloth. Oh well, it works well enough, I suppose.

Not pictured: Zucco's fez

Oh yes, and Jack Pierce returned as the makeup effects artist. And this movie marks the biggest difference between Imhotep and Kharis. Remember how Imhotep was only in the wrappings for a few seconds of screen time? Here, Kharis is all wrappings all the time, so you really get your money’s worth of on-screen shambling mummy action. One more thing of note is the (I guess) rotoscoped effect on Kharis’ eyes that covered Tyler’s human eyes with dark circles. It’s a neat effect, and not visible in the trailer, but adds to the otherworldly quality to the character. Shame its only used in this movie.

Screenplay by Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane, who divided this movie into what is effectively two parts. The first is a straight up comedy with Banning & Jenson bumming around Cairo, trying to get funding, and meeting Solvani by Babe trying to hustle him into buying a round of drinks on a bet. There’s a lot of banter and a fair bit of comedy with the horror placed on the back burner. Once they get to the dig site, the horror plot really kicks in as characters start dying off and Kharis makes off with Marta, while still holding onto the more lighthearted characterization of the heroes. Its an odd thing, but kind of works in its weird way. Banning’s cut from a very familiar cloth of bland horror heroes, but through his proactive and good-natured, er, nature, he kind of rises above his more generic ilk. That and Babe is not only a likable goofball but also really handy in the clutch.

And the tana leaves thing is actually kind of a neat idea that allows Kharis to get stronger or weaker as the plot demands. As a writer, I can appreciate that kind of built-in flexibility to the rules of animating a mummy.

Original music by Hans J. Salter & Frank Skinner (both uncredited), the music is definitely 40s era Universal horror music (sweeping cues, flexibility between melodrama, tension, and bombast, that sort of thing).

You know, I liked The Mummy’s Curse. While The Mummy was a product of Universal’s "Classy Horror" period in the 30s, The Mummy’s Curse has the pulpy feel of 40’s Universal horror. I was not originally ready for the comedy elements to be so strong, but they weren’t badly done and the flick’s able to balance between Babe cracking one-liners and Kharis strangling people quite well. Quite fun, actually.

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