With the benefit of hindsight and the tendency of time periods to compress as we get further from them, it's not uncommon to think of Universal Studios initial wave of monster movies as comprising a boom that stretched from 1931 to 1945, but it was nothing of the sort. There was an initial flurry of horror films in the wake of Dracula that only lasted from '31 to '33, then there was a period of confusion and needlessly stretched-out, costly attempts to develop sequels, following which the studio underwent a crisis of management that found Carl Laemmle Sr. and Jr. forced out of their company, taking with them Junior's affection for the horror films he stewarded. It was was only after the success of 1939's Son of Frankenstein, created to cash in on a hugely profitable double-feature re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein, that something like an actual "boom" finally kicked in, lasting for just five years and not 14.

I bring this up mostly to explain what seems inexplicable, if we follow the conventional wisdom that Universal was cranking out horror films like mad: that it took eight years following The Mummy in 1932 for the studio to make another film starring their bandaged horror. Contextually, particularly considering the box-office under-performance of The Mummy, it would have been almost stranger if there wasn't such a gap (we should not fail to notice that The Invisible Man of 1933 also had to wait until 1940 for its first sequel).

Anyway, when a second mummy film finally emerged, in the form of The Mummy's Hand, it wasn't connected to the first film in any way: not as a sequel, and despite the presence of a few conspicuously repeated plot elements, not as a remake, either. This shouldn't really be of any real concern, for among other things, it spares us the spectacle of trying to undo the distinct finality of that movie, and eliminated the need for inter-film continuity, both characteristics of the Frankenstein series done consistently poorly. What is a real concern is that as a result of the upheavals at Universal in the latter half of the '30s, the state of horror in the new decade was one of almost complete rejection of any kind of ambition or artistry: the 1940 crop of horror pictures marks the point at which Universal's horror output became predominately relegated to B-pictures, anything that could be made quickly and cheaply, designed as quick-moving amusements that would amuse and perhaps briefly spook the audience, but mostly pass through the system quickly as a minor distraction could manage.

Some of the films made in this mode were more effective than others, and it can at least be said that The Mummy's Hand is significantly better than the default setting for Universal's B-movies. Still, if you watch it in any kind of proximity to The Mummy, the immediate and overriding thing that you notice first and most heavily is that it looks cheap. Desperately so, in its opening scenes, where the emptiness outside of Cairo could not possible look any more like a hillside in Southern California. Pathetically so, when the film's prologue repurposes The Mummy's historical flashbacks, and the immensity of the gulf separating the two budgets is made manifest.

The cheap needs not inherently be the enemy of the entertaining, though, and The Mummy's Hand is charming and easygoing enough in its matinee-movie way, though there are enough unforced errors throughout that it's really hard to think of this as one of Universal's most shining moments. Things start off with too much of an exposition dump, to start with, as the high priest of Karnak (Eduardo Ciannelli) - and it would appear that the screenwriters, Griffin Jay & Maxwell Shane, have it in their heads that Karnak is a cult or a god, not a physical place - instructs his foremost disciple, Andoheb (George Zucco), in the history of the Princess Ananka and her lover Kharis (Tom Tyler), who committed blasphemy in an attempt to raise her from the dead. For punishment, he was buried alive with a supply of tana leaves, which allegedly have the power to preserve life. Ever since that day, 3000 years ago, members of this sect have religiously prepared a tana leaf brew to pour on Kharis's body, keeping him in a state of perpetual half-death, ready to be revived and avenge any crime committed against Ananka's tomb. This is all presented a bit artlessly, but when a movie is as hell-bent on getting to the end as the 67-minute The Mummy's Hand is (one huge benefit of '40s B-pictures - they did not dick around), you need to get the rules spelled out fast and efficiently, and the cost is elegance, fuck it.

Somewhat later, in Cairo, rag-tag archaeologists Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford) are looking for financing; Banning is convinced that he has a shard of pottery from Ananka's tomb, and he wants to go digging. Unluckily for him, his attempts to get money from the Cairo Museum are thwarted by one of that institution's Egyptology experts, who declares the shard an excellent forgery. Since that expert is the very same Andoheb who has just become the high priest of Karnak, we can readily assume that he's hiding something important. Undaunted, Steve and Babe go hunting for a rich patron, and they think they've found one in the form of American magician Solvani (Cecil Kellaway), who happily agrees to fund their expedition; what they don't know is that he's on his last legs, and this is a get-rich-quick scheme for him that thoroughly angers his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), warned against the archaeologists by Andoheb. She thus insists on traveling into the desert with the three men to make sure that her dad doesn't end up murdered, along with the great Egyptologist Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) and that's how we end up with a whole merry passel of travelers camped right outside the tomb where Kharis rests, ready to be revived and sent on a killing spree.

Every negative or mixed review of The Mummy's Hand starts out the same way, so let me please not break with tradition: seriously, fuck Babe Jenson. If you have ever found yourself struggling to get through any kind of genre film in the '30s or '40s that was just about done in by its comic relief, then you know the type, but Ford's wacky sidekick is of an entirely different order. He's an overt Lou Costello clone, only far more laconic and soft-spoken, which is somehow infinitely worse than a faux-Costello* who goes too far being shrieking and manic; I think it's because Ford is so bland about the shenanigans he's called upon to execute that it seems like he doesn't really care about them, which makes us not care about them, which makes them seem exceptionally pointless, and watching someone trying to play Costello-style freak-outs reasonably straight is just excruciating on the face of it. It's both sullen and shrill at once, and for a film that already dodges a comic relief bullet with Kellaway's sweet and amusing Solvani, to see this kind of agonising bumbling given such prominence threatens at times to make the film unwatchable altogether.

There's nothing else explicitly wrong with the film, though plenty of things I would have traded in: Foran is an acceptable matinee lead, though not by any means an inspiring one, but Moran is real pill, aiming for a Maureen O'Hara level of tart self-assurance and ending up nowhere remotely near that; every one of her line readings is curiously flat and sarcastic, an interesting approach for a horror film's damsel in distress, but not this one. Tyler was cast largely because it was felt that he was the right build to be intercut with footage of Karloff from the first movie, and his limited amount of time as the stalker creeping up on people in the night - this is basically a slasher movie, structurally - doesn't suggest that we want to see very much more of his unexceptional presence and carriage than we get. the best thing about his mummy Kharis, in fact, is the optical effect used to black out his eyes and mouth, a legitimately off-kilter and creepy touch.

Outside of the mummy itself - which, unlike the earlier film, never takes the form of a living human, just a withered, bandaged, angry cadaver - there's nothing much in The Mummy's Hand that even thinks to be taken seriously as horror; director Christy Cabanne was a magpie, making films in every style you can name across one of the most prolific careers in the history of cinema, but his training was especially in comedy and adventure, and those are very much the things that come to the fore here. It's an awfully lighthearted, fun movie, even for a B-horror, where it never seems more than vaguely likely that anybody we like will be harmed or even seriously inconvenienced by the mummy, and both Kharis and Andoheb are dispatched so easily and arbitrarily that even if either of them had been seriously threatening before, it would be hard not to retrospectively consider them to be awfully weak sauce, as villains go. This is a movie aiming not to trigger an "Ooh, a mummy! Spooky!" response, but "Ooh, a mummy! Cool!". Or whatever word they used for "cool" in 1940. The point is, it's a high-spirited lark with just enough creepy details that it doesn't completely defang the monster of its title, and while its genial comic thrills aren't at all what one is looking for out of even the second and third tier of Universal monster movies, that's not to say that it doesn't work on its own terms, as the thing it set out to be. That "disposable" was among the things it set out to be is neither here nor there.

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)