Sh! The Octopus

Directed by William C. McGann

The Devil Bat

Directed by Jean Yarbrough
Screening on Film
  • Sh! The Octopus

    Directed by William C. McGann.
    With Hugh Herbert, Allen Jenkins, Marcia Ralston.
    US, 1937, 16mm, black & white, 60 min.
    Print source: Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

Standing foursquare among the towering achievements of world cinema, Sh! The Octopus transcends mere words. Director William C. McGann shows his inventiveness from the start, daring to place Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins into starring roles, fully confident they can carry a feature as easily as Cagney or Flynn. Next, he boldly confines most of the action to a single, cramped set—a lighthouse interior—compelling his cast to make dynamic acting choices in the most restrictive of conditions. His most audacious move is to keep the Octopus off-screen much of the time—a touch famously ripped off by such later, inferior films as Cat People and The Thing. Finally, he brings it all in at a taut 54 minutes, ensuring there won’t even be the slightest whiff of padding; it can scarcely be summarized here, but it involves a pair of cops, a mystery woman, a corpse and, of course, an Irish police commissioner. Released as a huge Christmas present to an America still rising from the Depression, it was hailed by Variety as “so feeble even the actors look ashamed of themselves… the studio should be willing to call it quits after this.” If motion pictures are indeed the world’s greatest art form, then Sh! The Octopus is truly the pinnacle; after seeing it, you’ll stagger out of the theatre, secure in the belief you have reached out and touched the face of God. – Michael Schlesinger

  • The Devil Bat

    Directed by Jean Yarbrough.
    With Bela Lugosi, Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O’Brien.
    US, 1940, digital video, black & white, 69 min.
    Copy source: HFA

Almost hard to watch except when mad doctor Bela Lugosi or his mutant bats are on screen, and padded to an unforgivable extent by scenes in which amateur detectives and potential victims stand around the set wondering about mysteries whose answers have been known to the viewer from the beginning, The Devil Bat is at once less effective than it should be as a low-grade horror film and more effective than any film needs to be as an absurdist condemnation of human fatuousness. The stupidity of the characters is so total, and the characters themselves so irritating, that Lugosi and his campaign of revenge seem completely justified.

The contribution of Jean Yarbrough, here making his second feature film as director, is not very distinguished, but more committed or more imaginative direction would hardly have made a difference to the film. The Devil Bat belongs to, and exists solely for and because of, Lugosi. On a downward career spiral from which he would never manage to rebound, the former star of Dracula compensates himself for the ignominy of appearing in this pathetic little production by wringing each of his scenes by the neck and acting everyone else off the screen. – Chris Fujiwara

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