CAPSULE: SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937)

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DIRECTED BY: William C. McGann

FEATURING: , Allen Jenkins, Marcia Ralston, John Eldredge, Elspeth Dudgeon

PLOT: Two policemen, an artist, a femme fatale, a pair of captains, a socialite, and a housekeeper are all trapped in a lighthouse with the Octopus, a criminal overlord, and an octopus, a mollusk, menacing them as they investigate a mysterious murder.

Still from sh! the octopus (1937)

COMMENTS: Sh! The Octopus has something for everybody. Its inspired mash-up of screwball comedy, mystery, horror, science fiction, and melodrama defies categorization, and isn’t for those who tend toward dismissiveness. When a feature film clocks in at under an hour, can be found streaming for free on YouTube, and has been buried in a sea of Reader Suggested titles, all the warning signs are there. I ignored these signs and committed myself to fifty-four minutes of wild gyrations between tiresome comedy and middling comedy, ultimately witnessing a witch-y performance and a narrative punchline that made a certain technicolor 1939 classic feel derivative.

But first, the story. Irish-American cops Kelly and Dempsey are cruising around off duty when they are informed via dispatch that Kelly (Hugh Herbert), who spends his time in the patrol car popping pills of unknown provenance, is about to become a father. Meanwhile, “marine artist” Paul Morgan has purchased an abandoned lighthouse from the federal government to focus on his paintings—a lighthouse with the aptly named “Captain Hook” as its caretaker. Meanwhile, Clancy, another Irish-American, has been appointed as the police commissioner tasked with bringing down a gang-lord known as “the Octopus”. Meanwhile, at the lighthouse, more and more people assemble as the plot spirals outward wildly, revealing that the FBI, the “Society for Peace”, the proto-CIA, and the proto-INTERPOL are all interested in the plans for a Radium Ray—a weapon so powerful that, as the inventor’s daughter informs us, “whoever controls it would control the world!”

That’s a lot of “meanwhiles,” and a lot of Irish-Americans. And that’s the kind of movie this is: your basic “haunted house” framework with every conceivable plot-graft bolted on to it (probably by some Irish-American workers). I’m a fan of screwball comedy, and so had more patience for what was going on than most would, but I still was wondering what all these gyrations could possibly be in aid of. However, there was a twist at the end that left me chuckling for a good fifteen minutes after the lighthouse exploded. (Whoops; spoiler alert.) Sh! The Octopus is a barely passable movie, to be sure, but it does have that twist. And it’s a concise bit of nonsense for the more stereotypically minded on St. Patrick’s Day.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Probably the weirdest little film made by a studio during the Golden Age of Hollywood.”–Phil Hall, Film Threat

 

One thought on “CAPSULE: SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937)”

  1. I have a great deal of affection for this film, bad as it is. It also has one fantastic special effect that might well baffle modern viewers as to how it was done (hint: It’s stunning but can only be done in black and white). There were a lot of “old dark house” style mysteries being made in this period, but this one is a uniquely strange mash-up of tones and styles.

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