My word, it's shoddy. The Mummy's Hand is sloppy, amateurish and easily the worst Universal horror classic I've seen to date, thanks to its director, Christy Cabanne. I watched it convinced he must have been seventeen and making his first film, but on the contrary he's apparently one of the most prolific directors in the history of American cinema. He made 166 films from 1911 to 1948, not counting all the ones he wrote or acted in, but no one seems to like him. He's been called one of the dullest directors of the silent film era, while at the other end of his career you'll find low-budget rubbish made up of westerns, jungle pictures and horror films for studios no one's heard of.
The Mummy's Hand is the work of someone who neither cares about nor understands the art of filmmaking. The frustrating thing is that there's a perfectly good film underneath all this, but it's died the death of a thousand lazy directorial decisions. I don't hate the cast. I'm sure this film was a career-worst performance for half of them, but the giveaway is that they're all bad in the same way. It's like a primary school nativity. "Say the lines. Pull a funny face. Yup, that's good enough. Next shot." This rubbish is clearly the result of a production-line shooting schedule from a director whose definition of a bad performance would be not looking at the camera. Look at how he handles dialogue scenes, for instance. He'll occasionally do almost a whole scene in a single stagey two-shot, but with a few close-ups so clumsily edited in as to be almost jarring.
The tone isn't helped by Wallace Ford as Babe Jenson, annoying comedian. Almost everything he says or does is a gag. His character's introduction is to walk on screen and start wisecracking. He's like Lou Costello, except not funny. This is someone who accidentally blows up his dynamite, plus he even has a straight man! That would be Dick Foran, one of the few actors here who's consistently putting in the effort, and you can think of him as like Bud Abbott but better played. I honestly wonder if this started life as an Abbott & Costello film where they'd written the script but then found at the last minute that they couldn't afford the stars.
Of the other actors, Tom Tyler manages to be terrible even with no lines to say and being wrapped from head to toe in bandages. His tragic flashbacks are hilarious and he can't convincingly strangle people. George Zucco is the film's one good actor, although even he has his stupid moments and he'd have done better not to wear the fez. Cecil Kellaway is adorable, although they do to death the joke about him not being able to stop doing magic tricks in that scene with his daughter. Peggy Moran is fine. She's never embarrassingly bad, which is so startling in this film that it made me wonder if Christy Cabanne would perhaps go easier on his actresses.
Incidentally George Zucco would return in the next two sequels and die anew each time. Wikipedia claims that it's not this film but The Mummy's Ghost that's widely regarded as the worst in this series, which right now I'm having trouble believing. (Note: I was correct. The Mummy's Ghost is quite good.) Presumably some people like this. In fairness it's shoddy rather than fundamentally broken. I could even imagine someone really enjoying it if they'd never before seen a professionally produced film and/or were capable of laughing at Wallace Ford in a good way.
The script has all sorts of problems, but it's the unprofessionalism that bugs me. Take the card-picking scene, for instance. In an oddly distasteful little vignette, Ford is in a bar trying to scam money with card tricks. Unfortunately his latest mark is a professional conjurer. Foran spots a stage poster on the wall and tries to warn Ford, but he does this by gesticulating wordlessly for a few seconds and then just sitting there looking appalled without lifting a finger. One can only presume he's brain damaged. Naturally all this makes Foran look terrible, but it's hardly his fault. Any director worth his salt should have noticed that the scene wasn't working and done something. Reblocked the scene. Rewritten the dialogue. Told Foran not to notice the poster. Hell, they could have just changed the character's motivation so he thought it was funny. Dammit, anything!
Mind you, that's not to say that the rest of the plot makes sense. They start by lifting that 1932 backstory about the Mummy Kharis being bent on protecting the Princess Abble-Obble or whatever her name was, but then halfway through forget all that and just have him rampaging around killing. What keeps him going is a brew made from tana leaves and you'd think these little bottles of liquid were really homing beacons. Furthermore he "strangles" various random strangers, but then on meeting Peggy Moran decides instead to pick her up and carry her away in his arms. Why? He doesn't have a personality in this film. He's just a killing machine. Next thing you know, suddenly the evil Professor Andoheb, High Priest of Karnak, is deciding to mummify this girl and turn her into his high priestess for all eternity, despite not having known she existed thirty seconds previously.
It looks nice, though. A camel! Sand! The illusion of production values! This was a low-budget movie, but it looks rather swish thanks to footage lifted from 1932's The Mummy and sets reused from a 1940 jungle flick called Green Hell starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Vincent Price. You'll think you're in Egypt. Amusingly they only reshot with Tom Tyler the close-ups in that stock footage, so most of the time that's Boris Karloff. The climactic showdown in particular takes place on an unusually flamboyant set for a Universal horror film. You'd think there must be a James Bond villain lurking somewhere.
The mummy looks terrific too. Its first shot is so classy that it feels almost too good for the movie it's in. I was always a bit disappointed by the 1932 mummy being just Karloff in a fez. This is far more of a monster movie, with the mummy getting no dialogue and instead just shambling around killing. The secret is that this is actually a reboot of the franchise rather than a sequel, with the three movies to come all being sequels to this film rather than its predecessor. However there's a daft moment where a professor one minute says Kharis was buried alive and the next calls him the most amazing example of embalming he's ever seen.
Political incorrectness is the main problem with the visuals. Powerful people are white, while anyone of an authentic ethnicity will be in a walk-on role and slaves are black. Maybe I'm being oversensitive, but it made me wince to see an ancient Egyptian death cult being led by a middle-aged white American. This film was a product of another time and we should be trying to make allowances... but that was still uncomfortable for me to watch.
This movie is like a film school seminar in bad directing. Its idiocies are almost innumerable. If I don't make myself stop now, I never will. A mummy murders someone and you hear a scream. Do you run off to investigate? No, you and your friend pause and then look at each other first! This may be a time-honoured gag, but it wouldn't have taken much effort to make it work. Similarly the film ends with Foran's character learning that he's been offered a job back in America, for no reason except that the credits are coming and you can't leave your heroes having blown every penny they had on an expedition where a mummy ran wild and killed people. Maybe they sold off the Bond villain set? Again the problem has an obvious solution, yet no one could even bothered fixing it. It becomes a "where the hell did that come from?" moment instead.
This isn't a terrible movie. It's riddled with horrible flaws, but they're mostly minor...
Actually, no. I take that back. It really is a terrible movie.