Halloween Watch: Sh! The Octopus (1937)
Adam and Samantha discuss their last film in honor of Halloween. If you have enjoyed this series, please join them every Thursday in November for their discussion of turkeys, notoriously bad movies in celebration of Thanksgiving.
A: Imagine approaching the box office and saying, “One for Sh! The Octopus, please.” I think it’s important to remember that it’s a hard-and-short “sh!” not a whispery “shhhh.”
S: Did they have multiplexes in those days? Wasn't there just one show to see, whatever was running right at that moment? I never know how to say this title out loud. Usually I say, "That movie Sh! The Octopus" so no one thinks I am shushing them.
A: This was my first ride on this rodeo. I ended up watching it twice in two days. The first time it felt like the script was a mad rush of random characters, the plot was all conveyed through confusing rapid-fire dialogue, and it was an avalanche of ideas with a juvenile disregard for any rules of storytelling. The second time I watched it just confirmed all those assessments.
S: The first mention of the octopus in this movie reminds me of Data's mention that "The octopus was really scary," in The Goonies. It sounds like a funny, ridiculous joke at first, and the
n you find out it is real. (In the case of The Goonies, the scene was deleted.)
A: Exactly. I thought “The Octopus” was a code name for a crime syndicate, but no…
S: I love the franticness of this film. It moves without explaining how the scenes go together, or how the characters go together, or why there is a literal octopus attacking a lighthouse. The acting of the ensemble is completely over the top, which makes Herbert and Jenkins' familiar eccentricities seem normal. They're the straight men.
A: Director William C. McGann is probably to be praised (or condemned) for that franticness. He has an interesting filmography, largely in special effects and camera work. He photographed some of the early Douglas Fairbanks pictures, including the weird and wild When the Clouds Roll By. He was also assistant director of the infamous musical Golden Dawn—that’s been on my to-watch list for a long time.
S: I think the only other thing I've seen that he directed was The Stolen Jools, the promotional short that has Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy in it.
A: The trade paper Motion Picture Herald had a regular feature called “What the Picture Did for Me,” where theatre managers would write in very brief comments about how particular films were performing in their venue. This movie was, not surprisingly, divisive. Here are a few of my favorite comments:
· “Scared the life out of the kids, but you couldn’t pry them out of their seats until the end.” –A.E. Eliasen, Rialto Theatre, Paynesville, Minnesota
· “The nuttiest comedy I ever saw […] I played this one on bargain nite and packed ‘em in as a single bill built up with good shorts. Everyone was satisfied.” –R.W. Crickmore, Rainbow Theatre, Newport, Washington
· “…our patrons are tiring of these crazy things.” –P.G. Estee, Estee Theatre, Parker, South Dakota
· “Men have been shot at sunrise for less offenses than this. And if I had been there, I would have cheered them on.” –A.E. Hancock, Columbia Theatre, Columbia City, Indiana
· “NO, in big letters.” –W.E. McPhee, Strand Theatre, Old Town, Maine
Remind me to tread very lightly if I ever visit Columbia City, Indiana! One “woo woo” and you’re liable to get shot.
S: Suffice to say this movie would appeal to two types: juveniles and people with a perverse sense of humor. If you deliberately seek out bad movies for a laugh, this one is for you.
A: The dialogue in this movie is surreal. Many lines would not be out of place in a Larry Blamire picture. On my second viewing, I transcribed a few lines just to see how they look on paper. I noticed that they often followed the structure of the title, i.e. an exclamation followed by an absurdity. For instance, “The foghorn! It always blows when the octopus comes in his submarine.” Or “A cave! I used to play in a cave when I was a little girl.” Perhaps my favorite is, “The Octopus music! He said he’d play our funeral march.”
S: I loved the exchange: “Paul!”
“So, you two know each other?”
“I never saw this woman before in my life.”
Or what about, "I was alright until I heard somebody laugh." Is that a meta reference to the audience being unable to take this movie seriously?
A: This movie does not play by any known rules. Even its length is strange: 54 minutes. Those last five minutes are jam packed, including a moment of horror that is hair-raising. It’s the classic Jekyll and Hyde transition effect but, wow, is it ever effective!
S: Yes, I think most historians come to this film because of the impressive special effects, and then when they're done, they ask themselves, "What did I just watch?"
A: As silly as the whole thing is, I honestly believe there is order to the chaos. Hear me out--this film is about the Freudian concept of castration anxiety. Without revealing too much of my theory, I’ll just say a lighthouse is a phallic symbol...
S: Ha! Okay now you're grasping at straws.
A: I ain’t squiding. Sorry, just kracken myself up over here. I loved this movie; I give it four mellowcreme pumpkins. Woo woo!
S: Me too! I'm glad we could end this series on a high note.