It's extraordinary how poor Universal's Mummy films are. Throughout the rest of their horror canon, the nearest thing they have to a bad film is the eccentrically structured but still enjoyable House of Frankenstein. These however shocked me. The Karloff original is a teensy bit dull but still classy, but the subsequent Mummy films aren't even competent. The Mummy's Hand (#2) is directed by a trained chimp, while what The Mummy's Tomb (#3) gets wrong is the script.
We start with a 12-minute recap of the previous film. Yes, you read that right. 20% of this movie is a "Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer" recap, as told thirty years later at a family gathering. Dick Foran, George Zucco and Wallace Ford all return from the previous film, except that Ford's character's name has changed from Jenson to Hanson, while the previously "bald as an egg" Zucco is now sporting a head of hair despite now being so decrepit that we're meant to believe we see him die of old age. Incidentally despite that thirty-year gap, both Hand and Tomb are obviously set in the year they were made, with Tomb even going so far as to date itself with a wartime reference to the Russian front. This should have been the year 1970. Remember that date, since we'll be returning to that theme later in the series.
The Mummy's Hand is a much better-looking film if you cut most of its footage, incidentally. This should surprise no one who's seen it. It's also a relief to see that Ford's not a comedian this time.
The next section of this film lasts 8 minutes (again a long time in a 60-minute movie) and is about the heroic adventures of... um, our villains, as they take the mummy Kharis to America to bring doom upon the tomb-desecrating Banning family. I actually like the thirty-year-gap. The iconic thing about mummies is their antiquity, so I think it's rather clever to mark the passage of time like this. However it also makes absolutely no sense, begging the question of what Zucco's High Priest Andoheb had been doing for those thirty years and why he'd waited to tell his successor all this important stuff until he had seemingly only minutes to live. He'd return again in the next film, but we're not supposed to know that here.
The two important newcomers to the series are both villains: Lon Chaney Jr as Kharis and Turhan Bey as Mehemet Bey. Chaney didn't much enjoy playing Kharis, since it involved up to eight hours of getting wrapped up. Tom Tyler's make-up job looked better, but Chaney's a far better actor even if he doesn't get much room to show it. Nevertheless Chaney does get in one nice moment of characterisation despite having no dialogue and no facial expressions, in which he's clearly annoyed with Mehemet Bey and is tempted to kill him but obediently stumbles off anyway. Kharis no longer uses the tana leaves as a magical homing beacon, thank goodness, although he still drinks it.
Turhan Bey however is terrible. Harold Young is a far better director than Christy Cabanne and produces a professionally produced film rather than an insulting shambles, but the problem is Bey. He can't act at all. He did a bunch of films in the 1940s before drifting out of the business, but came back to do a little TV in the 1990s. He's in a couple of Babylon 5 episodes as the Centauri Emperor Turhan.
Oddly enough, for a while I could forgive his woodenness. He looks Egyptian. Apparently he's cited The Mummy's Tomb as his favourite role for being close to his own nationality: half-Czech, half-Turkish. I've winced at enough ethnically inappropriate casting in these mummy movies to give a little cheer at this one. Unfortunately later on the script calls upon Bey's character to fall in love with the heroine on first sight and order Kharis to kidnap her in order to make her his bride. He's a stalker, basically. A (coloured) stalker who kidnaps our (white) hero's (white) fiancee to have his wicked way with her. You can see how this might not look so politically correct.
Of course the stupidest thing of all is that Universal's mummy films have all so far been plugging away at this hackneyed old cliche. It's a movie trope. The monster carries off the girl. It works in King Kong and in Karloff's The Mummy, but with his mute successors it's even more ridiculous than in The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
That's only the most obvious script absurdity, though. You can't blame this film on Turhan Bey. It's basically all the script's fault. It's clumsy both in big ways and small. It has awkward narrative jumps, surprising us with lines like, "Look, John, you can't spend the rest of your life doing detective work." How much time was supposed to have passed? We've seen about ten seconds. When the hero proposed to the heroine, I'd thought they were already married. Bey dies in the most retarded way I can remember from any movie, in which he walks into the middle of a torch-waving mob (including policemen) and tries to shoot one of their number. Half the film is over before its narrative lurches into life as anything recognisable as a story.
Fortunately it's so straightforward that it doesn't really have room to go properly off the rails. Had it been two hours long then we'd have been looking at a train wreck of epic proportions, but instead it mostly comes across as a bit wrong-headed. It also has the advantage of getting the dullest stuff out of the way in the first half, ending well with a nicely staged climax of flaming torches and a house burning down. Harold Young creates one or two nice sequences, including a mildly sinister kill. Normally these films just have an arm reaching out of nowhere, but one of Kharis's victims here sees him coming and tries to run. That was a good bit.
If it weren't for the script, this would be a perfectly good little film. The direction is good. The acting is better than it seems, since John Hubbard and Elyse Knox are struggling with underwritten parts and a plot that lurches gracelessly from beat to beat. I don't think it's Knox's fault that the most prominent thing about her is her bosom and that only when she's being carried by Kharis. Nevertheless these post-Karloff Universal mummy films are obviously lesser pictures than their more famous stablemates starring Dracula or Frankenstein. They're quickies made by second-string creators, using stock footage to make them look less cheap. This one stars Lon Chaney Jr, but you'd never know it was him. If like me you're watching your way through the Universal back catalogue, do these last.