GUILTY PLEASURES: Wallace Stroby

Universal mummy movies, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

To clarify: I don’t mean the big-budget Brendan Fraser CGI fests, the garish Hammer films of the 1960s, or even the subtle and moody Boris Karloff/Karl Freund original from 1932. For me, there’s only one real movie mummy, and that’s the shambling, tana-leaf-craving Kharis, who showed up in four quickly made Universal films of the early 1940s, most often played by Lon Chaney Jr.

The first of those movies, 1940’s THE MUMMY’S HAND, is actually a solid second-string Universal horror. Shot on sets left over from the James Whale-directed adventure film GREEN HELL, HAND has a look that belies its budget. Former cowboy star Tom Tyler plays Kharis, and the cast is filled out with fine character actors such as Cecil Kellaway, Wallace Ford and genre veteran George Zucco (as the high priest Andoheb, Kharis’ caretaker). Though it’s unconnected plot-wise to Karloff’s THE MUMMY, it incorporates footage from that earlier film, with inserts of Tyler cut in for the close-ups (though in the long shots, it’s still clearly Karloff).

But it’s the three sequels to HAND that are closest to my heart. THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942), THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1943) and THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944) were all shot quickly (often less than a month each) and rushed out to theaters as the bottom half of double-bills. It’s in these films that Kharis (now ostensibly played by Lon Chaney Jr., though in many scenes clearly a stunt double) really hit his limping stride, in a lovably low-budget way.

TOMB moves the action from Egypt to sleepy Mapleton, Mass., 30 years after the events of HAND. Dick Foran and Wallace Ford return (in old-age makeup) as two of the men who originally tussled with Kharis after they discovered the tomb of his long-lost love, Princess Ananka.

TOMB runs 60 minutes, and a full 11 minutes of that is recycled footage from HAND, recapping the story. Zucco returns as Andoheb, despite his apparent death in the first film, passing the torch on to another evil high priest, this time played by Turhan Bey. (John Carradine takes over that job in GHOST, Peter Coe in CURSE).

In addition to being the slowest monster in movie history (how did he catch anyone?), Kharis is ill-served by his minders, who must be the most incompetent high priests ever. Almost as soon as they’re entrusted with the mummy’s care and feeding, and have sworn vengeance against those who dared desecrate blah, blah, blah, a hot babe catches their eye and they forget their priestly vows. In small-town America, this inevitably leads to all kinds of trouble, up to and including angry townspeople on the march with torches and pitchforks. In TOMB, some of these mob shots are lifted directly from 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. If you look quickly, you’ll see a few of the citizens of 1940s Mapleton are wearing lederhosen and Tyrollean hats.

What makes these films even more endearing is that, although direct sequels to HAND, all three are rife with continuity errors. Ford’s character is called “Babe Jenson” in HAND, but in TOMB he becomes “Babe Hanson” (When he’s killed by the mummy, a newspaper proclaims “BABE HANSON MURDERED!” in Pearl Harbor-sized headlines). Zucco returns as Andoheb in GHOST, but by then the high priests of Karnak have inexplicably become the high priests of Arkam. What’s more, there’s little explanation for where Kharis has been between films. In GHOST, he just shows up out of nowhere, as if he’s been wandering the backroads of Massachusetts the whole time.

The continuity gets even wonkier in CURSE. At the end of GHOST, Kharis vanishes into a New England swamp. At the beginning of CURSE, the swamp is drained and Kharis is restored to life, but the location has suddenly changed to Louisiana, and the townspeople are Cajuns. Even more fun is the timeline. HAND is clearly set in 1940 (the date is seen on-screen at one point). TOMB supposedly takes place 30 years later (as does GHOST), and CURSE refers to Kharis having disappeared in the swamp 25 years previously. Which means CURSE takes place in 1995, though it still looks a lot like 1944.

What these films do have in spades is mummy content. You get a lot of bang for your monster buck. Barely five minutes pass in any of them before Kharis is back on-screen, shuffling through the night and alarming townspeople (“There’s something outside. I seen it gone by the window!”).

I loved these movies as a kid. Still do. There’s something very upfront and unpretentious about them. Sleepless with fever a couple years ago, I watched the three of them back to back. Quite comforting, actually.

WALLACE STROBY:

Wallace Stroby ‘s latest novel is COLD SHOT TO THE HEART. His previous books include GONE ‘TIL NOVEMBER, THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE and THE BARBED-WIRE KISS, which was a finalist for the Barry Award for Best First Novel. A New Jersey native, he spent far too much of his childhood watching movies. His website is www.wallacestroby.com.