Though typically thought of as a sequel to Universal's 1932 The Mummy (it's included as one of the five films in The Legacy Collection's two-disc Mummy DVD set), the 1940 The Mummy's Hand is really the start of its own separate four-flick series. Where the original Karl Freund-directed Mummy was a moody and evocative piece with more than a trace of Sax Rohmer-esque exotica (star Boris Karloff had just finished playing Rohmer's Fu Manchu), Hand is a more straightforward adventure yarn with a few fright scenes inserted.
When I first saw this movie around the age of eight, the sight of Tom Tyler's stiff-legged mummy shambling through the woods still managed to scare the bejeebers out of me – but, as with Universal's House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula programmers, what began as genuinely creepy, reasonably adult fright fare had quickly devolved into matinee formula. With Drac and Frank, at least, you got some decent sequels (Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula's Daughter) before the descent into B-Pic predictability.
Still, Hand can be quick fun (clocking in at something like 64 minutes) on an October Saturday morning. Set in Egypt (later entries in the series quickly relocated the action to America), the story centers around the mummy Kharis, buried alive near the tomb of his forbidden love Princess Ananka, and the evil High Priest of Karnak (the ever smarmy George Zucco) sworn to protect both Kharis and Ananka's tombs from the intrusion of non-believers. Unlike Karloff's Im-Ho-Tep (also buried alive for his forbidden love – those early Egyptians were really a buncha stick-in-the-muds), Kharis is mute throughout the picture, his tongue having been torn out so no one would hear his screams from the tomb. Considering that the monster is being played this time by an actor better known for B-westerns, it was probably a wise decision to keep him quiet. You really don't want your mummy evoking the Old West every time he speaks.
Zucco's high priest has his work cut out for him, though, thanks to the efforts of archeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran, also the star of many an oater) and tagalong "Babe" Jenson (durable comic buddy actor Wallace Ford), who are on the trail of Princess Ananka’s tomb. Funded by professional magician Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) and his comely daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), the duo quickly make their way to the Hill of the Seven Jackals and discover Kharis' digs. Naturally, high priest Andoheb sets the mummy after 'em.
Hand was the first in the series to introduce the idea of tanna, the miraculous extinct leaves that keep Kharis alive and give him motion. Three leaves, we're told, are enough to jump-start his vitals; nine are sufficient to get the creature up and movin' (though not enough to give him full use of his limbs since he continues to walk 'round with a limp and only has one good arm); more will turn the mummy into a "soulless demon" of unmatched power. One of the biggest differences between forties era flicks like this and more modern movie fare can be seen in this simple plot detail. In Hand, the movie ends when our plucky protagonists stop Kharis from ingesting too many tanna leaves – phew, the viewer thinks, that peril was averted! Nowadays, the audience is conditioned to expect a big CGI-enhanced blow-out – and would be cranky and disappointed if it didn't get to see Soulless Demon Kharis.
Still, if you can handle the big build-up without the spoon-fed payoff, The Mummy's Hand has its own clunky charms. Ford is dependably fun playing the comic relief from Brooklyn, even if we never learn quite what it is he brings to the partnership. Late in the flick, he shares a moment with Peggy Moran's Marta just before our hero Steve is about to leap into peril. "Kinda like to have him around, do ya?" he sez to the girl. "Me, too." But before we can dwell too long on this homoerotic subtext, the mummy shows up to kidnap Marta. More build-up without any payoff.
Tyler's mummy (the character would be taken up by Lon Chaney Jr. in the next three entries) is suitably ooky in his periodic close-ups – an effect enhanced by post-production blacking out of his eyes and lips – even if he doesn't have much personality. (If the eyes are the window to the soul, then Kharis is a pretty vacant house.) Zucco is his usual melodramatic, slithery self. There's a moment early in the film where, meeting our heroes for the first time in his guise as a museum director, his eyes start darting everywhere like Robert Walker in Strangers on A Train, and you can't imagine how Foran's Steve – or anybody else in Cairo, for that matter – could believe a single word out of the guy's mouth.
Zucco made a career playing such over-the-top types, and though we see his stunt double tumbling down a mountainside of stairs in Hand's climax, his character would show up for at least two more Mummy pics. True to type (because High Priest = Horny Guy – one more instance of Evil Hollywood's unending vendetta against good old-fashioned religion), Zucco's Andoheb lusts after Marta, ultimately plotting to make her his eternal love by strapping her onto an altar and sharing a dose of tanna leaves with her. "Is that three leaves or nine?" the audience wonders. "Surely not more!" But Andoheb, the bastard, never tells us.