The Mummy's Tomb (1942)
Okay, put away your books. Time for a pop quiz. I know, I know, I promised that you wouldn’t have one today, but isn’t the point of a pop quiz the surprise factor? Don’t worry, it’s brief. Here we go. Established: The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) runs for 60 minutes and 35 seconds. Established: 11 minutes and 27 seconds of that runtime is spent recapping, with extensive flashback footage, the previous film in Universal's Kharis series, The Mummy’s Hand (1940). Resolve: How much actual movie remains after you subtract the recaps? Show your work. Extra credit: Can The Mummy’s Tomb still be considered a feature film? Why or why not?
Joking aside, there’s not much movie in The Mummy’s Tomb, the second entry in Universal's Kharis the Mummy cycle, but that was the idea when they made it. The films in this series were always intended as low-budget quickies, easy to stick at the bottom of a double bill, and even easier to forget about. Unfortunately, in the rush for a buck, quality was sometimes left behind. The Mummy’s Tomb, with its miniaturized running time and been-there done-that plot, is the kind of hokum that reminds you that studios were exploiting the audience’s appetite for chills ’n’ thrills long before today’s never-ending procession of remakes, reboots, and sequels.
Thirty years after the events of The Mummy’s Hand, Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) has retired to the Massachusetts town of Mapleton, where his son, Dr. John Banning (John Hubbard) routinely dismisses his tales of mummies as nonsense. However, the new Priest of Karnak (Turhan Bey) has come to this quiet New England burg with Kharis the Mummy (Lon Chaney Jr) in tow, promising annihilation to anyone who desecrated Ananka’s tomb or who happens to be related to a desecrator. As the bodies start to pile up, John must put aside his disbelief and stop Kharis before a moldy hand closes around his own throat.
Before we get much further into the myriad of issues that plague The Mummy’s Tomb, let’s take a look at the one thing that works: its streamlined economy. I’m not talking the production budget, although that was probably tight around the corners as well. I’m referring to the economy of the action. Director Harold Young and screenwriters Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher spend no time at all getting to the monster. Even before the plot gets started, we see plenty of mummy action during the montage of Mummy’s Hand scenes. Then, in what amounts to the proper beginning of The Mummy’s Tomb, High Priest Andoheb (George Zucco in a cameo) opens a sarcophagus just before the thirteen-minute point to reveal the newly Chaney-shaped incarnation of Kharis. Less than seven minutes after that, Kharis is shambling by Mapleton windows, having left Egypt far behind. For the rest of the movie, we’re never more than six minutes away from our next “hit” of mummy mayhem, which gives the film a certain simplicity that some might find charming.
Others who argue for quality over quantity will be disappointed in Chaney’s portrayal of Kharis. While the makeup and bandages he wears render him virtually unrecognizable, his slouching, leaden performance makes him indistinguishable from any number of second-rate monsters-that-stalk-the-night. Chaney was never the most talented actor to come out of Universal Horror's Golden Age, but it seems baffling that he could fumble on a part like this. I understand that he was given to complaining about playing Kharis, but that’s not really an excuse for the character’s complete lack of personality and menace.
To be fair, some of the problems with Kharis probably stem from the writing. In the whole of the film, our main mummy is given only one moment where he’s allowed emotional expression. Everywhere else, he limps, strangles people, or carries off the damsel. However, this isn’t even the worst characterization in the film. Mehemet Bey is a virtually cut-and-paste of George Zucco’s character from The Mummy’s Hand, even down to the decision to kidnap the hero’s girl (in this case, John’s fiancée, Isobel, played by Elyse Knox) and force her into eternal marriage. The various townsfolk of Mapleton are all dumb yokels, afraid of their own shadows until they join the inevitable Torch-Bearing Mobtm in the last act. With characters this clumsy, I wonder if screenwriters Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher knew any people in real life, or if they just cribbed their idea of human behavior from movies they’d seen.
And, don’t even get me started on some of the weird writing choices they made. I’ll accept that the action had to move to Massachusetts from Egypt for purely budgetary reasons (although a mummy in New England makes about as much sense as a vampire in Jamaica). But, why did they have to move the action ahead thirty years? How do they reconcile the fact that both The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb seem to take place in the respective years they were released? Is there any particular reason why Steve Banning’s best buddy changed his name from Babe Jensen to Babe Hanson between films? These are nitpicks, sure, but they represent a distinct lack of care taken by the writers in crafting the sequel, a lack that I find that just a little perturbing.
The Mummy’s Tomb is the kind of movie where the people who watch it already know what they’re in for. I wish them the best of luck. However, I can think of a dozen-dozen better ways to kill an hour than this. There’s more than enough good cinema in the world – heck, there’s more than enough mediocre cinema in the world – made by people who gave a damn about it. Seek that out and you won’t ever need a film like The Mummy’s Tomb.