Saturday, May 20, 1978: The Wolf Man (1941) / The Mummy’s Hand (1942)

Synopsis: Lawrence Talbot returns to his family’s estate in England after a self-imposed exile of nearly two decades. He is welcomed back by his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), and talk quickly turns to Lawrence’s elder brother, who was recently killed in a hunting accident. Now that he is the eldest, Lawrence is heir to the estate, as well as heir to his father’s limited capacity for affection.

Lawrence has spent a good deal of time in California, and it shows: by the standards of his home town he is distressingly informal and decidedly frivolous, taking more interest in local shopgirl Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) than in the more serious matters surrounding the family estate. Nevertheless Sir John is happy about the prodigal son’s return, believing that Lawrence (or “Larry”, as he has taken to calling himself) has spent enough time in the New World to benefit the stodgy old ways of Talbot Castle. Larry is certainly good with tools and machines; it’s when he is working with modern contrivances that he seems happiest and most self-assured.

In an attempt to get on Gwen’s good side, Larry purchases an unusual item from her family’s shop: an ornate cane with a silver wolf’s head. The wolf, we learn, is a potent and fearful symbol of the supernatural in these parts, as is the pentacle, which is also etched on the handle of the cane.

It turns out that Gwen is engaged to Frank Andrews, a decent fellow; nevertheless, Gwen accompanies Larry to a Gypsy camp, where they hope to have their fortunes told. At the last minute, Gwen invites her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) to join them.

Alas, poor Jenny! She really ought to have known better. As Gwen and Lawrence walk together under the light of the full Moon, Jenny has her fortune read by Bela (Bela Lugosi). What the fortune-teller sees in Jenny’s future alarms him, and he urges Jenny to go home — immediately. Terrified, Jenny runs away into the woods.

Moments later, Jenny is set upon by some sort of animal. Larry, hearing her screams, rushes to her aid, and attacks the creature with his cane. He manages to kill it, but not before it mauls his chest. Larry staggers away, collapsing only a few yards from Jenny’s body.

Larry is taken home. The next morning he learns several disturbing facts: Jenny is dead, her throat ripped out. While a wolf clearly attacked her, no wolf carcass was found in the area; instead, the body of Bela the fortune-teller was found nearby, his head smashed in, presumably by Larry’s cane. Moreover, Larry’s chest shows no animal bites whatsoever.

Larry is at a loss to understand what happened, but Sir John offers a rational explanation: Jenny was indeed attacked by a wolf. Larry and Bela ran to her aid at the same time, and in the confusion Larry killed Bela, thinking that he was attacking the wolf. But Larry is unconvinced: how could anyone mistake a man for a wolf, even in the dark? How could the wounds on his chest only have been the work of his imagination? And why wasn’t Bela wearing his shoes?

That night, Larry Talbot undergoes a terrible transformation: he becomes a werewolf beneath the full Moon, and murders a gravedigger. The next morning, Larry confesses everything, but no one believes him.

No one, that is, except the Gypsy woman Maleva, who reveals that her own son Bela had suffered from the same curse….

Comments: Aside from introducing one of the great characters of the Universal horror pantheon, The Wolf Man offers something extra to devoted viewers of Horror Incorporated. The movie is simply loaded with actors we’ve seen again and again on the show. In addition to the ubiquitous Lon Chaney Jr, we also have Claude Rains (The Invisible Man), Evelyn Ankers (The Frozen Ghost), Ralph Bellamy (The Man Who Lived Twice), Bela Lugosi (Dracula) , Patric Knowles (The Strange Case of Dr. RX) and Fay Helm (Night Monster).

Sometimes movies that are lauded as classics prove disappointing to the modern viewer, but not The Wolf Man. It is, quite simply, a ripping good story. Much of its power comes from an insistence that modern logic offer no protection against ancient fears.

From the very beginning Sir John Talbot is depicted as a progressive fellow, insisting that Lawrence’s time in America can only benefit the locals. Throughout the movie, Sir John’s confidence in modernity and rationality never wavers. Yet for all his soothing speeches, he is absolutely powerless to prevent the mayhem that is to come. In the end this rational man loses his own child to the same irrational force that took Maleva’s. The only difference is that Maleva understands the ancient forces at work, and can at least make peace with them.

Curt Siodmak’s brisk screenplay wisely makes Larry a proxy for the viewer: he has been away so long that he is essentially a stranger in his home town (though, if he grew up in the area, it’s unlikely that he would be so ignorant of the werewolf lore everyone else seems to know by heart). Unlike the frosty Dr. Wilfred Glendon in Werewolf of London, Larry is depicted as a regular guy, someone who’d rather be buying a pretty girl a soda than peering through a microscope.

The screenplay rarely falters in making Larry a decent, likable fellow, but Siodmak arranges an unfortunate meet-cute between Larry and Gwen. Larry is setting up his father’s telescope at Talbot Castle and, peering into the eyepiece, just happens (cough, cough) to see Gwen through her bedroom window; smitten, he goes to her shop and asks for the earrings he knows are on her nightstand. This was probably considered fun and light-hearted stuff in 1941 (hey, he wouldn’t be spying on you with a telescope if he didn’t like you), but today it makes Larry seem rather unsavory.

Of course, this might be a hint of what’s to come, if you are willing to regard the werewolf as Larry’s repressed id running amok; but the metaphor of hairy-wolfman-as-the-animal-we-carry-inside-us seems too shopworn and dreary to go into. So let’s sidestep the issue and assume the telescope scene was meant to be innocent fun — in an era when any women who said otherwise would be accused of being no fun at all.

This was probably Lon Chaney Jr’s best performance, and the role seems to have been written with him in mind: Larry is good-natured, gentle in most circumstances, but capable of great anger when he feel he’s been wronged. This plays greatly to Chaney’s strengths as a soft-spoken but physically imposing actor. Similarly, Evelyn Ankers is not entirely forgettable here, as close to an acting triumph as she is likely to get.

Patric Knowles excelled at playing stuffed shirts named Frank, and he is perfectly serviceable here; but what Ralph Bellamy is doing as the local prosecutor, it isn’t easy to say.

Maria Ouspenskaya is brilliant in her first film appearance as Maleva. She brings a somber dignity to her character, as she would later in the less-dignified Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

The Mummy’s Hand

Synopsis: Archeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his sidekick / comic relief Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford) are down on their luck in Cairo. Unable to secure funding for their expeditions, they are preparing to return to America by steamship. But by chance Banning finds a broken pot at a bazaar that seems to indicate the location of the tomb of ancient Egyptian princess Ananka — a remarkable find, should it prove to be true.

Taking it to the Cairo Museum, Banning’s discovery is verified as authentic by museum curator Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge). Unexpectedly, though, the influential Professor Andoheb (George Zucco) declares that the pot is a fake.

Professor Andoheb knows perfectly well the pot is authentic. But he’s pulling double duty — not only is he the recognized expert on Egyptian artifacts, he is also the high priest of a secret order, chosen to guard the sanctity of Princess Ananka’s tomb.

Banning and Jenson are discouraged, but by chance they meet an American stage magician (Cecil Kelloway) who agrees to bankroll their dig. What’s more, the magician has a beautiful daughter (Peggy Moran) who insists on coming along on the expedition.

Using the map on the pot as a guide, the expedition unearths a tomb – but it is not Princess Ananka’s tomb. Rather, it’s the tomb of Kharis. Unlike most mummies, Kharis has a job — he is Princess Ananka’s last line of defense. And it isn’t long before Andoheb shows up at the site, to bring the mummy to life with a potion of tana leaves, and instruct it to kill all those who would dare defile the tomb of the princess….

Comments: Unlike its contemporaries Dracula and Frankenstein,The Mummy (1932) had no direct sequels. Rather, eight years passed before the release of The Mummy’s Hand, a movie which might best be described — in modern studio parlance– as a “reboot” or “reimagining” of the original.

None of the characters from the first film appear or are referenced in this one. Even though footage from the first film is used, and a forbidden-love subplot is borrowed, Kharis, not Im-Ho-Tep, is the titular mummy; Princess Ananka stands in for Ankes-en-Amon; the Scroll of Thoth disappears, replaced by the device of the tana leaves; and instead of the somber Whemple family, we have two archeologists so light-hearted that one can imagine them being played by Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. (Well, I did imagine it; and spent the first third of the movie wondering if they were about to break into song or do their grating patty-cake routine with Andoheb’s goons.)

Perhaps the most radical change is the concept of the mummy itself. Ardeth Bey was shown to be physically frail, incapable of doing much of anything as a mummy, even an ambulatory one. Passing himself off as a modern Egyptian, his main weapon was hypnotic control. In The Mummy’s Hand, Kharis is more like a traditional zombie: largely unaware of its surroundings and incapable of reason. It is almost entirely under Andoheb’s control, a slave to the tana leaf potion which is always placed, like so many dog treats, in the tents of the men it is ordered to kill.

The Mummy’s Hand is clearly a lesser movie than its predecessor, but in spite of some glaring plot holes (why would the ancient Egyptians festoon pots and medallions with a map to a forbidden tomb?) it is still quite lively and entertaining.

Dick Foran is a passable though undistinguished lead, and Wallace Ford (whom you may remember from the goony Night of Terror) wears out his welcome rather quickly. Peggy Moran is supposed to be the love interest here, but she spends most of the time looking sour, marking time until she needs to be rescued in the third act.

All three characters are rather unceremoniously disposed of in The Mummy’s Tomb, but that still lies in the future. For now, we can admire the work of Cecil Kelloway, who plays the Great Solvani with infectious enthusiasm; and that old smoothie George Zucco, whom you may remember as the love-sick professor from The Mad Ghoul. And Tom Tyler does as well as one can expect wrapped in bandages, with his eyes blacked out frame-by-frame in each of his mummy close-ups.

Ladies, perhaps you’ve dated better-looking guys. I admit he needs to work on his personal hygiene. But he’s from a good family and he’s very loyal.

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