Children of the night, they howl about the Hill of the Seven Jackals when Kharis must be fed. Should unbelievers seek to desecrate the tomb of Ananka, you will use nine leaves each night to give life and movement to Kharis. Thus you will enable him to bring vengeance on the heads of those who try to enter.
-The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
I like mummy movies.
That sounds like an admission of guilt, doesn’t it? The phrase ‘mummy movies’ brings to mind certain images – the lumbering hulk in his soggy bandages, chanting priests, exotic sets that could be Cairo, Marrakesh or Istanbul. A worsening series of films, stumbling on as if in imitation of the eponymous monster, regardless of studio, actor or era. If there’s really a curse on poor old Kharis’ tomb, there it is.
And yet…and yet.
Recently, I was talking to my friend and fellow monster movie enthusiast, David Annandale, about horror films, as we tend to do at ever available opportunity. Somehow or other, we got on the subject of the various mummy films, including the 1940 Universal classic, The Mummy’s Hand. I use the term ‘classic’ loosely, of course. It’s a fun film, and likely the antecedent of Stephen Sommers’ 1999 reboot of the franchise.
Directed by Christy Cabanne, and starring Tom Tyler, Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, George Zucco and Wallace Ford, The Mummy’s Hand is less a sequel to the 1932 Karloff film than the start of an entirely new franchise. Even the eponymous creature is a different beast entirely. Karloff’s Imhotep is a sinister, cosmic evil – a sorcerer and fiend. But Tyler’s Kharis is a lumbering automaton – a drug-fuelled titan, rather than a subtle menace.
Despite that, I prefer Kharis to Imhotep. While Karloff plays the character with all the malign charisma you might expect, the script itself does him no favours. It’s solid, but Karloff’s Imhotep is almost pastiche of Lugosi’s Dracula – they’re remarkably similar menaces, dealt with in remarkably similar ways. By the same actor, no less, as Edward Van Sloan played a remarkably similar character to Van Helsing in The Mummy.
Kharis, on the other hand, is something unique – an engine of destruction, seemingly with no mind or will of his own, save in the film’s final moments. For most of the film, he’s the tool of George Zucco’s Andoheb – a lurching shadow, wreaking havoc wherever he goes. The priests of the Hill of Seven Jackals employ Kharis as an attack dog, to guard the tomb of the princess he loved in life. There’s pathos in that – in death, Kharis now protects what he desired in life, but can no longer have.
Too, the tana which controls Kharis is akin to the potion which turns Griffin into an invisible lunatic, or the flower which transforms Wilfred Glendon. But where those potions unleash the beast within their imbibers, the tana keeps Kharis in check. A small dose allows him to walk and kill, but little else. But give him enough, and the chain slips. The monster may be free to do as he wishes. Andoheb lives in terror of this possibility – often jerking the tana away from his lumbering servant, when he’s judged the creature to have had enough.
At the film’s climax, there’s a moment where Kharis is on the cusp of becoming something more. The stiff, awkward machine transforms..becomes something more graceful, more monstrous. Just for an instant. A brief moment. And then…a gunshot. The tana spills. And Kharis, desperate, sinks down to lap, animal-like, at the spreading liquid on the stone floor. He groans, trying to force the dark liquid past his frayed lips. All to no avail. Freedom, so close, is snatched away at the final moment, but not for the last time.
In that instant, Kharis is a man, again. Not a machine of meat, stiff and unaware, but a man, seeking his freedom from the curse that grips him, even as the flames from a fallen brazier engulf him. It’s a subtle thing. A brief thing, over all too quickly.
There are hints here and there, in the films that follow The Mummy’s Hand, that this independence is growing – or at least undimmed. That Kharis chafes in his bonds, and seeks to escape his fate. He twists and writhes in alchemical chains, testing his limits, waiting for his moment. Kharis is more than what he seems. A tool, but an unwilling one. One that might turn in the hands of his wielders, if given half a chance.
For me, the horror of Kharis is not what he does. It is what he might do, if freed from the control of petty men. There’s a story there, never told, but always teased. What might the monster do, if he was free?
Only the gods know. And they’re not talking.
But never, for any reason, must you brew more than nine leaves at one time. Should Kharis obtain a large amount of the fluid, he would become an uncontrollable monster, a soulless demon with the desire to kill and kill.
-The Mummy’s Hand (1940)