IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
With apologies to Michael Myers, Kharis the Mummy just might be the scariest monster who can’t outrun a turtle ever to lumber across a movie screen! And he’s never been more frightening than in today’s SPOOKLIGHT feature, THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942).
THE MUMMY’S TOMB has always been my favorite Kharis MUMMY movie. The make-up here on Kharis by Jack Pierce, the man who created most of the iconic Universal monsters, including Boris Karloff’s Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), is by far the best MUMMY make-up of the Kharis series.
It’s also my favorite due to nostalgic reasons, as I owned an 8mm Castle Films copy of it when I was a kid. The film also boasts the most exciting ending of any MUMMY movie, period.
Kharis the Mummy was featured in four Universal Mummy movies, and in the Hammer Films remake THE MUMMY (1959) starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Kharis, but it was Lon Chaney Jr. who played the definitive Kharis, appearing in three Universal Mummy movies, the first being THE MUMMY’S TOMB.
THE MUMMY’S TOMB opens with a comprehensive synopsis of the previous film in the series, THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940), so if you’ve missed this first movie, no need to worry! The initial ten minutes of THE MUMMY’S TOMB brings you up to speed on previous events quite nicely. You can almost hear the voice-over narration, “Previously on THE MUMMY’S HAND.”
Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) the main character from THE MUMMY’S HAND recounts his adventures in that first movie to his son John (John Hubbard) and his future daughter-in-law Isobel (Elyse Knox), and his story is shown via flashbacks. Little does Stephen know that over in Egypt the high priest he thought he killed, Andoheb (George Zucco) still lives, albeit he’s now an old man, as thirty years have passed since the events of THE MUMMY’S HAND. Hmm. With this timeline, shouldn’t THE MUMMY’S TOMB be taking place in 1970? Where are all the hippies?
Andoheb now turns over the Mummy-caring duties to his young protégé, Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) because Kharis the Mummy didn’t die either. Not only is Kharis still alive, but he’s put on some weight! Has he been eating too many tanna leaves? No, he’s just being played here by the husky Lon Chaney Jr. rather than Tom Tyler, who played him in THE MUMMY’S HAND.
Chaney has been criticized over the years for being too big and thick to look like an authentic Mummy, but I’ve always liked this look, as it made him scarier. I mean, Chaney isn’t flabby and overweight. He’s solid and huge, like he could crush a man with his fists.
Mehemet Bey brings Kharis to the United States, to Massachusetts to be exact, to hunt down and kill the members of the Banning family.
And that’s pretty much it in terms of plot. The screenplay by Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher is pretty standard.
The strength of THE MUMMY’S TOMB is not its plot but its visuals. The movie contains some really neat scenes, and Kharis has never looked creepier. Shots of Kharis closing in on his victims still make me shudder, and some of the murder scenes in this one are downright brutal. Director Harold Young, not known for his genre work, really deserves a lot of credit for making a very chilling monster movie.
Young also makes good use of shadows here. Many times we see Kharis only through his shadow. In fact, when Kharis creeps across the countryside at night, he is unseen except for his shadow which falls upon several unsuspecting townsfolk. The shadow is used so frequently I’ve often wondered if the shooting script was entitled THE SHADOW OF THE MUMMY.
There’s a curious moment in the movie in the scene where Kharis attacks Babe (Wallace Ford), another character from THE MUMMY’S HAND. After Babe shouts out Kharis’ name, Kharis’ lips move as if he’s saying something in response. It looks almost as if a scene of dialogue has been cut from the film. I’ve never read anything to support such a cut, and it wouldn’t make sense in terms of the story anyway, since Kharis had his tongue cut from his mouth in the previous film, and is mute. But if you watch this scene, you definitely will see Kharis’ mouth move, and a cut does appear to have taken place right at this moment. Interesting.
The ending is exceedingly memorable. The torch-wielding villagers, in a chase scene reminiscent of the ending to FRANKENSTEIN (1931)- in fact, some of the footage from FRANKENSTEIN is used here— chase Kharis, who’s carrying an unconscious Isobel, and trap him inside a large house. John Banning, the sheriff, and another man run inside the house to rescue Isobel. The climactic battle on the second story porch between John, the sheriff and Kharis, while the villagers fling burning torches from below, is pretty exciting. I can’t think of another MUMMY movie that has a better ending than this one.
The cast is standard, and other than Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis, no one really jumps out at you. However the beautiful Elyse Knox who plays Isobel is notable because she’s Mark Harmon’s mother. Ms. Knox only recently passed away, in 2012 at age 94.
Lon Chaney Jr. actually does a stand up job as Kharis the Mummy. Chaney played all four main movie monsters: The Wolf Man, the Mummy, Dracula, and the Frankenstein Monster. While he’s most famous for his portrayal of Larry Talbot aka the Wolf Man, and rightly so, his three performances as Kharis the Mummy are more effective than his work as either Dracula or the Frankenstein monster.
He makes Kharis damned scary. His look is such that when he enters a room, he almost paralyzes his victims with fear, which is a good thing for him, because with his limp, he’s not going to catch anybody. You can outrun Kharis running backwards. But Kharis always seems to corner his victims, and once he’s blocked the exit, his prey is as good as dead.
Very few of the old Universal monster movies are frightening. I would argue that THE MUMMY’S TOMB featuring Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis the Mummy is one of the scariest.
I dare you to watch it alone this summer without having nightmares of Kharis the Mummy breaking into your bedroom in the middle of the night.
Over there, by the wall! Is that the Mummy’s shadow I see?
Did you enjoy this column? You can read over 100 IN THE SPOOKLIGHT monster movie columns in my horror movie review collection IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, now available as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, or as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.