“The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942)
by A.J. Hakari
When you hear people go on about what lame horror villains mummies make, you can thank flicks like Universal’s Kharis series. 1932’s The Mummy got around this by playing itself as a supernatural romance, wherein Boris Karloff’s Imhotep proved to be a cunning and even sympathetic adversary, rather than a mere shambling ghoul. But the latter is just what the studio delivered when they started work on a new franchise featuring Kharis, an all-new bandaged brute used by a group of high priests to hunt down those treasure seekers who dared defile his grave. Needless to say, these pictures did Universal no favors, as they ended up amongst the least frightening, charming, and — in some cases — comprehensible additions to its genre output. To its credit, 1942’s The Mummy’s Tomb is at least a competent movie that even exudes a mild eeriness at times, but that’s just about all the good one can say about it. In the end, it’s still a dreary and mostly uninteresting horror show, one that cuts swaths through characters we don’t care about and boasts an antagonist who hardly has a hint of fright hanging about him.
Thirty years have passed since the horrifying events of The Mummy’s Hand. Archaeologist Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) and his gang managed to snuff out the campaign of terror waged by Andoheb (George Zucco), an Egyptian who sought revenge for the tombs of his ancestors being raided. But as it turns out, not only is Andoheb still alive and kicking, so is Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr), the mummy his people have used to do their dirty work. The high priest has a bone to pick with the Banning bloodline, so he sends his young follower Mehemet (Turhan Bey) on a mission to exterminate the entire clan once and for all. Having traced the Bannings to Massachusetts, Mehemet soon sets up shop and sics Kharis on those poor souls on his master’s to-kill list. As the townsfolk work themselves into a frenzy over this wave of strange murders, Mehemet develops an obsession with Isobel (Elyse Knox), the fiancé of Stephen’s doctor son (John Hubbard). But with the Bannings getting bumped off one by one, will there be any left to save Isobel from a fate much worse than death?
You know you’re in trouble with The Mummy’s Tomb when it abandons its coolest angle — being set within the ancient ruins of Egypt — so that it can transplant the action into Everytown, USA. Don’t expect to do much cowering in terror here, unless you’ve a severe stock footage phobia. Yep, The Mummy’s Tomb is another Universal cheapie that resorts to padding out a good quarter of its running time recapping the movie that came before it. It’s kind of neat to have a sequel that picks up with some of the same characters decades down the road, but that they’re so easily dispatched to make room for an ensemble of veritable cardboard cutouts is a spirit-breaker, to say the least. While nobody’s performance is especially awful, our heroes aren’t memorable on even the most basic level. Be it our romantic leads or the cranky old sheriff (Cliff Clark), it’s hard to pick out a single soul here that’s brimming with any shred of charisma or personality. The closest we get is Bey as Mehemet, who does a decent job of keeping up ominous appearances with his exotic looks and ability to recite his hammy dialogue with a stone face. Even still, his role as a bad guy doesn’t extend much beyond standing on the sidelines and employing Kharis as his own personal hitmonster.
Speaking of our devil du jour, The Mummy’s Tomb really falls apart when it comes to supplying a fearsome force of nature. Without the back story he received in the previous film, Kharis is relegated to nothing more than a hulking beast shuffling his way from victim to victim. Jack Pierce’s make-up design (which Chaney particularly despised having to don) is okay, but it hasn’t a thing on Karloff’s look or, for that matter, Tom Tyler’s get-up from The Mummy’s Hand. Lord knows Chaney is buried under so much rubber and adhesive that being able to exhibit any emotion whatsoever is simply out of the question. There’s one cool shot where you see Kharis’ lone visible eye giving a thousand-yard stare as he creeps up on some poor sap, but outside of that, virtually anyone could’ve slapped on the costume, for all the good it did Universal to tout Chaney in the role. In the end, he amounts to an incredibly boring monster who requires you to curb-stomp your sense of disbelief if you’re to buy him getting the jump on his targets while moving at the pace of a molasses avalanche. Still, you’ve got to hand it to Kharis for being more physically fit than other movie mummies, what with him hauling around ladies and ascending garden trellises without a bandage torn or a bone crushed into dust.
The Mummy’s Tomb is harmless, but I’ve still no affection for it or any of the other Kharis movies. The mythology isn’t evocative, the characters are as stock as they come, and the atmosphere is all but nonexistent. It definitely has a leg up on the two woeful sequels that followed it, but The Mummy’s Tomb is still one of least entrancing Universal horror outings I’ve ever seen.