Sh! The Octopus

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That great title is the main attraction of this cheerfully nonsensical

Warner Bros. farce, which mixes up a couple of bumbling police detectives,

Kelly and Dempsey (Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins), with a trenchcoated dame

(Vesta Vernoff) who stumbles out of the rain and into their squad car claiming

that her stepfather has been murdered at a nearby lighthouse. “He’s the

inventor of a radium ray so powerful that anyone who controls it controls the

world,” she explains with a straight face, then adds, urgently, “Every nation

is seeking it.”

Not long after their investigation begins, a host of oddball

characters arrives on the scene, including the aptly named Captain Hook (George

Rosener), a self-described “marine painter” (John Eldredge), a shipwrecked

woman (Margaret Irving), and more — all behaving strangely. There may also be a

body hanging from the rafters. The title refers to a newspaper headline describing

a “giant crime octopus” that was read aloud by a pill-popping Kelly in the

opening reel, but also to the creature that lurks near the bottom of the

lighthouse, fidgeting its tentacles, slamming doors, and assaulting the

occasional diver.

It runs just 54 minutes, and it’s obvious the film was shot

on the cheap, so there’s no point in beating up on it for its terminal

staginess, or some technical missteps. The performances are all game, and I

have to admit that I chuckled at Herbert’s incessant “woo-hoo” schtick, which

is said to have inspired those early characterizations of Daffy Duck. 

What’s surprising is the mileage director William McGann

gets out of his effects budget. Those tentacles appear on screen often enough

to rouse an audience that might be getting a little sleepy, and a full-size

octopus puppet is seen in a couple of shots. Though the effect is resolutely

phony, the film is good-natured enough to encourage the viewer’s complicity in

the illusion. And McGann scores major points with a shot near the end of the

film in which the villain of the piece, finally revealed, transforms into a

hideous fiend as the camera rolls. McGann got his start as a cinematographer

(including work on Three Ages, with Buster Keaton) and later in his career

would become a special-effects specialist on films including The Big

Sleep, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, and The Fountainhead — and

earning an Oscar nomination for the 1946 film A Stolen Life, in which Bette

Davis played twin sisters.

Finally, there’s a twist ending that plays as a cheeky

parody of The Wizard of Oz — but The Wizard of Oz hadn’t even begun principal

photography when Sh! The Octopus was released. Just a weird coincidence, then —

one that’s apropos for this weird little film. (Unfortunately, it’s not

available on DVD — I caught it as part of what was apparently an octopus-movie

marathon on TCM over the weekend, courtesy of a mention from the

weird-little-film aficionados over at the Mobius Home Video Forum.) B-

Note: Since this review was written, <i>Sh! The Octopus</i> has been released on DVD-R as part of a set of “horror mysteries in the Warner Archive series.

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