If your stereotypical notion of a mummy movie is an undead corpse in moldy bandages scraping its feet along as it stalks terrified victims who really only need to walk at a brisk pace to keep well ahead of a monster that they could destroy with a matchbook, you should know that not all mummy movies are created equal. Universal's initial 1932 film The Mummy is certainly not like that; its mummy spends virtually all of its screentime as a flesh and blood human played by an especially menacing Boris Karloff (and who wouldn't be frozen to the spot in terror by an especially menacing Boris Karloff?). Nor is The Mummy's Hand of 1940, the actual kick-off to the mummy films as a series, where the mummy is a stalker that takes people from behind in the dark, unawares. As for The Mummy's Tomb, released in 1942, you've got that one dead to rights. This is not only a film in which people stand there and scream until the slow creature with a crippled right arm chokes them to death; it's a film in which one victim is so unspeakably horrified that he falls down to the ground in a fear coma with the mummy still approaching him from several feet away.

It's firstly for this reason, though definitely not solely for this reason, that The Mummy's Tomb is the first Universal mummy movie that's not really worth it. Another good reason would be the film's opening, which takes place thirty years after the events of The Mummy's Hand - and since dialogue and newspapers make it seem clear beyond a reasonable doubt that this film takes place during the time of America's involvement in World War II, this would theoretically mean that The Mummy's Hand took place around 1912, regardless of how contemporary it looked. Alternately, we could assume that none of the film's three writers gave all that big of a shit about inter-film continuity, and based on the evidence of Universal's Frankenstein series at the same time, this would probably be the more sane thing to do.

Anyhow, we land in Mapleton, MA, where retired archaeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) is holding court in his living room, entertaining his sister Jane (Mary Gordon), physician son John (John Hubbard), and John's special ladyfriend Isobel Evans with stories of his career. Jane is plainly not very impressed by any of this, but the younger folk eat it up enthusiastically, encouraging Steve to tell his favorite story of all, about the time that he and his great friend Babe Hanson (Wallace Ford), who apparently changed his name from Babe Jenson in shame after having been such miserably fucking awful comic relief last time around, got tangled up with the secret cult protecting the ancient tomb of the Egyptian princess Ananka. And particularly their equally ancient mummy. The film being a two-years-later sequel, and 1942 having not yet seen the blessed invention of the VCR, I get that the filmmakers had to recap the previous film. I totally do. I've seen plenty of these movies before. But there are bright, clever ways of executing such a recap, as happened in the gonzo "Mary Shelley at the fireside" opening of Bride of Frankenstein, exposition dumps that are genuinely fun to watch in their own right, if you happen to be caught up already. The Mummy's Tomb does not remotely possess such a recap. This is just footage from the last movie dumped in front of our faces with narration, unimaginatively stomping by all the major plot points, and the really awesome part is that it's not over until past the 11-minute mark of the film (that includes the credits). The Mummy's Tomb runs for all of 60 minutes, like a good '40s B-picture. That is a gargantuan percentage of the film's running time devoted to retelling the previous film's story, and once the actual plot revs up, it's not hard to suppose that's because reaching 49 minutes was already a bit too much of a strain.

With Steve's long story completed, we switch over to Egypt, to find another man telling the exact same tale (we are not treated to his rendition, though that might have been interesting, in a Persona-esque "different perspectives on the same narrative" way. I don't suppose I need to mention that Universal monster movies are rarely to never described as "Persona-esque"). It's Andoheb (George Zucco), the high priest of Karnak who fought Steve and Babe way back when, and just as he began the last film by receiving instruction in the keeping of the mummy of Kharis (now played by Lon Chaney, Jr.), so does he now pass on the same instruction to his acolyte Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), as he prepares to breathe his last. And why didn't he breathe his last 30 years ago? As he puts it in admirably functional dialogue "the bullet he fired at me only crushed my arm" (that Andoheb thus ends up cradling his useless right arm in the exact same fashion as Kharis, without anyone ever calling attention to it, is one of the few outright brilliant touches in the film). And, "the fire that sought to consume Kharis only seared and twisted and maimed". Lines which compensate for being dramatically unsatisfying by almost daring you to call them on it in their "this is a B-picture, deal with it" clearness.

The last request Andoheb makes of Bey before he dies is that the young priest should take Kharis to the infidels that nearly destroyed the cult and make them pay with their lives, and the lives of their families. Thus does Bey take the hibernating mummy to New England, taking up a job as caretaker of the local cemetery, in order to revive Kharis and sic him on the unsuspecting Bannings; Steve dies almost immediately, and Jane a bit later, and the police are absolutely stymied at this mysterious, untrackable killer. It's not until Babe Hanson comes up from New York to pay his respects to the late Steve that anyone can figure out what's going on; he recognises the telltale dust and mold tracks of a mummy on the victims' throats. The cops don't buy this, of course, but when a scrap of ancient linen that only looks like the prop department bought it that same morning shows up in the woods, it starts to confirm the substances and their ages that Babe is suggesting, if not necessarily the paranormal agent responsible for them.

Meanwhile, Bey has caught sight of Isobel during his stalking of the Banning house, and not only does he want to kill Steve for the honor of the Karnak cult, he wants to take the gorgeous socialite for his own. Because in 1942, the only thing more horrifying than a shambling, undead corpse mauling people was the thought of a brown-skinned man having sexual thoughts about a white woman.

I'll say this much for The Mummy's Tomb: it's simply too damn short to wear out its welcome. The opening ten minutes are a disaster, but from that point onward, it's never boring; it doesn't have a chance to be. Plus, it's much more credible as horror, even as B-grade horror, than The Mummy's Hand ever tried to be, thanks in large part to George Robinson's inky cinematography, which isn't very imaginative, as such things go, and it absolutely isn't the handsomest-looking horror film that Robinson shot for Universal, but there are plenty of moody black shadows for Kharis to hide in and plenty of murky interiors to create an overriding sense of gloom even in scenes that totally lack a mummy. Director Harold Young made absolutely no other horror movies that I can tell, and he certainly doesn't a lot to help the visuals or the actors build a horrifying mood; but at least he doesn't obviously fuck anything up.

Meanwhile, Chaney makes for a fine mummy; the make-up limits him (though the make-up is a huge improvement on The Mummy's Hand; even the aging make-up on Foran and Ford is pretty good), but there's still plenty of lumbering menace to his performance that you can't immediately dismiss the neurotic behavior of everyone who sees him as pure idiocy, and there's even a bit of wit to his scenes with Bey, and pathos to his frenzied actions in the final scene, as he attempts to find every drop of spilled tana leaf juice that will keep him alive. "Alive", anyway.

The negative column adds up faster, though: the plot is anemic and tiny-scaled; the American setting for a mummy is incongruous enough that it desperately needs a director with either a great sense of irony or of surrealism, and Young has neither; Bey's job as cemetery caretaker is built up too lengthily to just fizzle out into nothingness; the presence of newspapermen covering the murders results in telling a pair of unforgivably twee headline montages; the final act is an incredibly weird intrusion of the "mob with torches" motif from a Frankenstein film, and John Hubbard is a really, really boring leading man, without even Foran's weirdly erudite charm to justify the time he spends onscreen. The acting, in general, is what hurts the film the most, actually: for the most part, The Mummy's Tomb is an inoffensive but awfully standard Universal horror film for this period of time, but it has atypically uninteresting leads, and a really watery villain (though at least the half-Turkish Turhan Bey is the first olive-skinned actor playing an Egyptian in this series, which gives him some distinction), and nobody but the mummy to make any impression at all. It's not actively incompetent or stupid, but it is uniformly tepid.

And, for the record, it is the first Universal mummy movie in which there is no location nor a plot point that can be said to refer in any way to a mummy's tomb. Take that as you will.

Reviews in this series
The Mummy (Freund, 1932)
The Mummy's Hand (Cabanne, 1940)
The Mummy's Tomb (Young, 1942)
The Mummy's Ghost (Le Borg, 1944)
The Mummy's Curse (Goodwins, 1944)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (Lamont, 1955)