THE BOOTLEG FILES: “SH! THE OCTOPUS”

One of the weirdest films ever turned out by a major studio during the Golden Age of Hollywood was a 52-minute 1937 B-Movie comedy/mystery from Warners Bros. with the unlikely title of “Sh! The Octopus.”  Yes, that is the title of the film.  And it is actually the most normal thing about this utterly surreal offering.

“Sh! The Octopus” was based on a Broadway play that was staged in 1928.  Why it took nine years for the play to reach the screen is unclear, nor is it certain why a full-length play was telescoped into a film running less than an hour.  This severe editing, coupled with the inclusion of new slapstick sequences, created a work with a surplus of energy and freneticism and a glaring deficit of coherence.

The film takes place in an abandoned lighthouse on a typically dark and stormy night.  The lighthouse and the storm surrounding it constitute some pretty awful special effects: it clearly looks like a miniature structure positioned in a bathtub.  The lighthouse itself has become the property of an artist who is moved in by two demented old sailors: one named Captain Hook (complete with a metallic replacement for a lost hand) and one named Captain Green (who keeps babbling endlessly and is called “an old fool” by Captain Hook).

Meanwhile in another part of town, dum-dum police detectives Kelly (baggy-eyed Hugh Herbert, who punctuates every other sentence with a high-pitched “Woo-Woo!”) and Dempsey (Allen Jenkins with a severely dyspeptic frown) are driving through the rain when they encounter the lovely Vesta Vernoff, who is running for her life.  Although it is raining with an intensity unseen since Noah’s day, her hair and make-up are not the least bit dampened.  Vesta fears that her stepfather, a brilliant scientist who invented a super-duper “radium ray,” has either been kidnaped or killed by a crime boss called The Octopus.  Vesta’s stepdad lives and work in…you guessed it, the lighthouse.

The detectives and Vesta show up at the lighthouse and are soon joined by Vesta’s elderly nanny, who answers to the name of Nanny.  Why a grown woman needs a nanny is not clear.  There is also the arrival of Polly Crane, a wise-cracking woman who claims to have been washed ashore from a boating accident, but she is also bone-dry despite the storm outside.

The lighthouse is a pretty strange joint.  There is a body hanging from the tower that drips blood, but when it is cut down it is discovered to be a straw dummy with a ketchup bottle in its pants.  Lights go on and off, hidden doors open and lock, and every now and then long octopus tentacles reach out from a dark doorway and grab someone.  The octopus tentacles are operated by painfully visible strings and the actors work overtime to convince the audience that they are in a death grip.  There is also a sea lion waddling about; the creature has no dialogue, which is a shame since he has the best screen presence.

All through the action, the two detectives carry on a running patter of bad puns, malapropisms, and some of the most thudding laugh lines ever shoved into a screenplay.  When they first hear Vesta’s scream, their reaction goes:

KELLY: Sounds like a wild animal.
DEMPSEY: Sounds like a woman
KELLY: Oh, a wild woman.  Woo-Woo!

Dempsey shows off his brainpower by referring to a dead body as the “corpus delicious” and Kelly, when asked what he is doing in the lighthouse, responds: “Oh, a little lighthouse-keeping.  Woo-Woo!”   These are the funniest lines.

Eventually, most of the people gathered reveal their true identities: the artist and the demented old salts are federal agents, the wise-cracking boating accident victim is with a peace league trying to get the radium ray, and Nanny is really The Octopus…until the real octopus reaches its tentacles up from a cellar door and drags her to her doom.  Just when it can’t get any sillier, the film is all revealed to be a dream by Kelly, who is in the hospital where his wife has given birth to twins.  But why do the babies look just like his partner Dempsey?  (Allen Jenkins plays the babies in a trick camera effect.)

Does any of this make sense?  Or even sound entertaining?  Believe it or else, “Sh! The Octopus” is so completely off-the-wall that it becomes hypnotic.  Inane observations drip and drop all over the place (most notably when Dempsey learns of a new Police Commissioner named Clancy and he comments: “It’s about time the police force did something for the Irish!”), and the film’s cheese factor with brutally poor special effects makes it seem like a forerunner to Edward D. Wood Jr.’s killer octopus anti-classic “Bride of the Monster.”  It is impossible to imagine how anyone in the Warners front office green lighted this effort, and audiences in 1937 who found the film must have been flabbergasted by its off-beat and endlessly ridiculous plot machinations and comic patter.

Over the years, “Sh! The Octopus” has developed a very small but powerful loyal cult following based solely on the highly infrequent television broadcasts of the film (to date, the film has been absent from American TV for over three years).  In one Internet newsgroup, seemingly endless discussions and punchlines have been laced around this weird little movie, making it something of a gold standard for cinematic lunacy.

Not unlike other B-Movies of its time, “Sh! The Octopus” has never found its way into home entertainment channels.  As it runs less than an hour and lacks big name stars, the problems in marketing such a film for home video release have clearly weighed in keeping it stuck on the proverbial shelf.  One company that offers videos on a “collector-to-collector” basis has “Sh! The Octopus” in its roster, recorded from its last TV broadcast (complete with network logo flashing in the bottom corner of the screen at one point!). 

But what “Sh! The Octopus” really needs is a solid push into the cultural mainstream as a lost classic of surreal cinema.  Because it is impossible to walk away from this film without being happily damaged.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on January 9, 2004 in Features by
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