The problems with Sh! The Octopus (1937) begin straight away, with that completely unspeakable title. I do mean unspeakable. How did you read that sentence in your head? The “Sh!” kind of stops you cold, doesn’t it? There should be a rule that exclamation points are not allowed to be used in the middle of a movie title, and further, if you are to use such brash punctuation, you at least deploy a vowel or two before it. As it is, the title is rather aggressive, and impossible to say peacefully. Sssssh! The Octopus. You see? You demand someone’s attention, rudely, just by trying to say the title of the film, and then you meekly add, “The Octopus,” as if by way of apology. Sssh! Ssssssh! Ssh, Ssh, Ssh!
It can’t be done. If you try to describe this film to someone else, and they ask what the title is, I want you to refuse. You have too much dignity, do you understand? You shouldn’t let the title of a 1937 comedy caper drag your reputation through the mud. You’re better than that.
I see immediately what they’re going for here, in this film which I shall call S.T.O. It’s obviously intended as a B-movie to showcase the comedy team of Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins. Herbert was a vaudeville comedian who appeared in countless films in the 1930’s playing variations on the same childish, dim-witted character; here he brings that character intact with the full understanding that you will arrive at the theater as a fan, anxiously awaiting his trademark noise, a little, piping sound at the end of a sentence that sounds exactly the same as the Pillsbury Dough Boy’s giggle. He’s the Costello to Jenkins’s Bud Abbott, which means that Jenkins gets to act exasperated at Herbert’s antics and pull him out of some tight jams. These two will be guiding you through this strange, infernal journey; your Dante and Virgil, if you will.
After their car breaks down on a deserted road in the middle of a thunderstorm, police detectives Dempsey (Jenkins) and Kelly (Herbert) meet Vesta (Marcia Ralston), a sexy brunette who claims that her stepfather has been murdered. She leads them to a lighthouse where they discover the body hanging from the ceiling. When Kelly looks up, blood splatters on his face. There’s no way to reach the body, as the decrepit old lighthouse has no staircase, but it certainly seems to be occupied: a secret panel opens to reveal glowing, inhuman eyes, and periodically a door will open and giant tentacles will flail about, before closing the door again on their own accord. Also, a deep and booming voice occasionally interrupts the activity – it is the Octopus (sh!) which is manipulating all events in the lighthouse, like nothing less than the omniscient Creator. Vesta explains that her stepfather was a brilliant scientist who invented a “radium death ray,” and he’s been murdered by a criminal mastermind known as the Octopus (sssh!). She knows this because the Octopus had sent a blackmail letter, signed with a crude drawing, which Kelly describes as “one of those fish, with the legs and the arms.” Out of a door steps Paul Morgan (John Eldredge), a “marine painter” who’s inherited the lighthouse. “You’re a painter, eh? Where’s your palette? Kelly, see if you can find his palette,” demands Dempsey. “Open your mouth, open your mouth!” says Kelly. “What do you think he paints, tonsils?” Dempsey screams back. “You know, an artist’s palette, one of those stands they put paintings on!” “Oh, you’re thinking of a weasel!” “Oh, skip it! You ain’t got no artistic knowledge!”
Vesta and Paul are lovers, but he pretends not to know her. This causes her to cover her mouth, look horrified, and leave the scene, with all the dramatics of a silent movie actress. In private, Paul explains to Vesta that he’s just trying to protect her, for they’re all in great danger. But Vesta is very easily alarmed. When the caretaker – a man named Captain Hook, who is afraid of ticking clocks (ahem) – she reacts to him by screaming: “That laugh, it’s terrifying!” Captain Hook arrives carrying Polly (Margaret Irving), who explains that she fell off a boat after attending a party. (Her clothes are perfectly dry, but never mind.) Eventually Vesta’s elderly Nanny (Elspeth Dudgeon) and a man named Captain Cobb (Brandon Tynan) arrive as well. With our cast assembled, it’s time for some more comic mayhem. Dempsey, who had wandered off exploring the lighthouse, comes stumbling into the room covered in a giant cobweb. Kelly makes his signature Pillsbury Dough Boy noise and fires his gun in random directions. He does this a lot throughout the film. The tentacles of the Octopus emerge from every egress, slamming the doors shut, and turning off the lights. (This may the only film in motion picture history in which a tentacle operates a light switch.) The body hanging from the ceiling disappears, and poison gas begins to issue from the ceiling. Captain Hook cackles in delight, “We’ve been trapped by the Octopus!”
As everyone piles through a trap door, the captain remains upstairs, locking the door behind them and laughing maniacally. Is he the criminal mastermind trying to steal the radium death ray? Perhaps not, for the tentacles swoop out of a secret passage and drag him off into the darkness. (Visible wires spoil the effect.) By this point in the film, you might be wondering, “So…am I to gather that the Octopus is actually an octopus? Is that what the film is trying to tell me? And can the octopus author blackmail letters, drawing a cute little picture of itself by way of signature, and is it actually that very cephalopod mollusc which is occasionally speaking in a booming voice through the walls to terrify its captives?” While the film is withholding its answers for now, I would only point out to you that this movie features a tentacle operating a light switch.
What’s next? Oh God, I don’t know. In the cellar of the lighthouse they discover a diving suit, and Dempsey volunteers Kelly to put the diving suit on and go down into this submerged pit, where he actually wrestles with an octopus, and his hose is cut, and then they discover the scientist stepfather who isn’t dead after all, and when they finally pull Kelly back up, his diving suit is inflated like a balloon, and upon removal of his helmet, water sprays everywhere, and I think this movie is starting to get to me – Sh! Sssssh! No, wait, I also remember this scene where Kelly is alone in a dark room, and he lights a candle and sets it down, and the candle starts to move, because he’s placed it on a tortoise, you see? And then his boots start to hop around, as though they have become possessed by an evil spirit – but no, there are jumping frogs in the boots, which makes Kelly…no, don’t do it, please…he makes that horrible unearthly Pillsbury Dough Boy noise, and fires his gun around in the air. But the Octopus is watching. The Octopus is watching all. His glowing eyes, peeking out from the secret panels…always the secret panels…
Sorry. I’ve gotten up, cleared my head, shook free these haunting memories of a film called – no, I will not say it. I keep thinking it didn’t happen, that it was only a fever dream. I haven’t been sleeping well lately. But yes, it is definitely real, it is a film that was made and presumably people sat in a theater and watched it unfold. Did they understand, in 1937? Or did they question the origins of this seemingly innocuous B-picture; did they dare think…? Who authored it, I wonder? I scrutinize the credits. “Screenplay by George Bricker, from plays by Ralph Spence, Ralph Murphy, and Donald Gallaher.” Plays, plural? Gallaher? What kind of a name is Gallaher? And that many Ralphs? This is a hoax; no, this is a cover. There is something else behind this, something older, something ancient, perhaps. I go to the closet, I remove a Scrabble board and scatter the tiles on the floor. I spell the names of the author of this film, then I reassemble the letters into a new configuration. No. It can’t be. I look at the film again. The cast has reassembled in the main floor of the lighthouse. They’re talking about how the radium death ray formula is safe, safe…but Captain Hook is back. Why is he back? I thought he had died, that the Old One had…but look! Out of a secret panel (always a secret panel!) a tentacle emerges from the wall, wrapping itself around him again. He’s being dragged off, before everyone’s eyes. And Nanny begins to cackle. She rips off a wig. Look at her face! It transforms, before your eyes, without even an edit! This is a film from 1937. They didn’t have CG. How is this being done? Nanny has become an old hag, she points at you, she cackles.
I mean she looks at you. Right at you, through the screen. Nanny is the Octopus. “I have a pair of arms for each of you,” she says, “arms that will strangle!” Ph’nglui mglw’najh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming! She forces at gunpoint three of the unwitting cast members toward a portal – an opening, a rift between dimensions – and the tentacles emerge and claim their victims.
She cackles again. Vesta screams. Then the trap door opens, and this time the Old One seizes Nanny. She is dragged down into the abyss, cackling all the way. Are we saved? No! For the doors are all locked, and Dempsey, Kelly, and Vesta are trapped. The detectives go to a control panel in the wall, and Dempsey begins pulling levers at random. “You’ll blow us up!” Kelly warns, but Dempsey disagrees. Then he blows them up.
Kelly awakens. He’s in a hospital bed. It was all just a dream. But of course it was. He fainted out of stress – his wife is in the hospital giving birth. She’s had twins, he’s told. We shake ourselves from our cold sweat. It was all too…vivid, wasn’t it? Not like any ordinary dream. And what about that moment when Nanny transformed and revealed her true – no, it was a dream. After all, this movie just told you it was a dream. Therefore, it wasn’t real. In fact, there probably was a movie called Sh! The Octopus, and it was an ordinary old-dark-house style thriller, and you just happened to doze through the whole thing. You know you haven’t been sleeping well. Ha – there, you see? You feel a bit foolish; and you gather yourself back together. It’s nearly over, isn’t it? On the screen, Dempsey is leading Kelly over to the crib to look at his newborn twins. They gaze at the children. They see something which you cannot see. What’s the film hiding? No, you mustn’t be so paranoid…it’s just that this film, the past hour, it’s been so….no. You must look at what they see. You must look with your own eyes, bravely, into the baby crib. And you see them. No. This can’t be happening. You’re awake, aren’t you? This is real, now, isn’t it? Can the Old One have claimed victory after all? You see, with your wide, wide eyes – you see the twins…