Saturday, June 27, 1970: The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)

Synopsis: Retired archeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) is regaling his son John (John Hubbard) and John’s fiancée Isobel Evans (Elyse Knox) with the story of his strange expedition to Egypt thirty years earlier: how he and the members of his expedition found the tomb of the mummy Kharis and, breaking the seal, unleashed a horrible curse that brought the mummy back to life. In a series of flashbacks, we are told how various members of the expedition were killed by Kharis, who was being controlled by the high priest Andoheb (George Zucco). In the end the mummy was destroyed and Steve and the surviving members of his party returned home.

John and Isobel find the story so fantastic that it isn’t clear if they completely believe it, but Banning claims every word of it is true.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, an elderly Andoheb is handing off his mummy-protecting duties to young Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey). He tells the young man that the defilers of Kharis’ tomb still live; they must be tracked down and killed, and their line must be extinguished. Bey immediately makes plans to sail to Massachusetts, where the Banning family lives.

Once in America, Bey takes a job as caretaker in a cemetery, and from the caretaker’s cottage sets his plan in motion. Each night he gives the mummy the potion derived from nine tana leaves, which brings it to life. He orders the creature to kill Steve Banning. It shambles out to the Banning house and does so. The next night Bey orders it to dispense with Babe Hanson, another survivor of the expedition. This too the mummy accomplishes.

But a mummy’s work is never done, and we learn that young John Banning is on the schedule for the next night. Surprisingly, the ultra-disciplined Bey hesitates. He finds himself captivated by the beautiful Isobel, and disobeys his orders from Andoheb by sending the mummy not to kill John but to capture Isobel, and bring her to him. What he does not know is that the townspeople are becoming suspicious of him, and that Kharis is close to rebelling against his sacrilege….

Comments: Let me confess right away: I’m a sucker for a good mummy movie.

My wife claims that the phrase “good mummy movie” is an oxymoron, but she is wrong. Mummies are thrilling creatures. They only do one thing (stumble around and kill people) but they do it really well. They are relentless, and of all the classic monsters in the Universal stable, they are the only ones focused exclusively on revenge.

Remember that Banning and his merry crew of grave robbers were explicitly warned not to break the seal of Kharis’ tomb, but they dismissed the warning as superstitious nonsense and did it anyway. For this reason they richly deserve what’s coming to them; and I find it hard not to root for Kharis in these films. I’ve been waiting for Horror Incorporated to bring us some mummy-related mayhem.

And mummy-related mayhem is what we get, in spite of a somewhat uneven script.

The Mummy’s Tomb starts out quite shakily, dressing Dick Foran in some unconvincing old-age makeup and having him frame a flashback sequence from 1940’s The Mummy’s Hand. The use of scenes taken from this earlier movie is quite extensive, running more than ten minutes, or nearly a sixth of the entire movie’s running time. This tells the viewer two things right away:

1. Enjoy these scenes set in Egypt, because you won’t see any more of them for the rest of the film.
2. Wasn’t The Mummy’s Hand an exciting film? We think so too. Wish we could just show you that one again.

But once we’re done with this clumsy bit of exposition, the movie starts running on its own power. Transplanting the action to Massachusetts is a bit problematic (how a shambling mummy is able to navigate the streets of Mapleton without being observed is never addressed) and the action is rather slow out of the gate, but it pays off in the end. We get a good, torch-wielding mob in the finest Universal tradition, and the movie finishes in the Banning house, now burning to the ground with a presumably stressed-out mummy wandering around inside it.

You would expect a film like this to be building an atmosphere of suspense and foreboding, as the smug members of the Banning party come to realize that 30 year’s distance from Kharis has not nearly enough to make them safe. But that never happens. Instead we’re treated to an atmosphere of rather dreary cheapness, a problem that plagues many of the Universal horror entries from this time.

Director Harold Young likes to use newspaper headlines for exposition, a common practice for films of this era, but he hilariously overuses the tactic here; every headline employs gigantic JAPS BOMB PEARL HARBOR font:

There are always, of course, moments of unintentional hilarity in movies like this, but I will refrain from pointing any more of them out to you. It isn’t a good idea to mock Kharis. If he could show up in 1942 after a sleep of 3,000 years, he could terrorize us all in 2011. He would kill me first, obviously, since I wrote this blog entry. But he wouldn’t stop there: he’d track the IP addresses of all visitors to the Horror Incorporated Project and wipe them out, one by one. You might think that you could outrun him, but you would be wrong. Through the magic of tricky editing, he’d get you.

So let’s just move along, shall we?

THE MUMMY’S TOMB can be found on the DVD set The Mummy: The Legacy Collection, which contains all five of the original films. It’s widely available, but you might want to check Alibris first — there are lots of used copies out there.

One comment

  1. Second in Universal's Kharis series, but the first to star Lon Chaney, who doesn't begin shuffling around until 20 minutes in. Dick Foran and Wallace Ford were likable heroes in THE MUMMY'S HAND, and along with Mary Gordon, the most likable characters in this film (anyone notice a pattern here?) The Mummy only strangles the most decent people in this film, while the most obnoxious numbskulls escape death, to the detriment of audiences watching. I hereby nominate John Hubbard as the most pathetic, least heroic “hero” of the entire Universal era; first he loses his father, then his aunt, then he himself willfully burns down the family estate in an admittedly thrilling finale, which, as the volume of sequels prove, fails to kill the monster (well, he was going off to war anyway). Elyse Knox, the mother of actor Mark Harmon, is equally blind to the tragedy around her, while Turhan Bey is a smarmy high priest (he fondly remembers his role in this film). Sharp eyed viewers will spot Glenn Strange comforting his horse, luscious Janet Shaw necking in lover's lane (yowsa!), and Vinton Hayworth, complete with moustache, as a reporter hanging out in the local pub (he played General Schafer on I DREAM OF JEANNIE). THE MUMMY'S TOMB aired 4 times on CHILLER THEATER, and forced me to avoid newspaper headlines ever since.


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