Words cannot express the sheer clammy grip of 1919 serial entertainment TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS!
But I’ll try.
We begin in the desert — not perhaps the most fitting location for an octopus, but the serial has 300 minutes to run so we can afford to take it gently. Not that we do! Immediately, two scientists stumble upon “the Ancient Egyptian Temple of Death” — they seem curiously pleased at this. “It was not a myth!” declares the more fervid of the two.
While the archaeologists are pottering within, their native bearers — who are all black — are set upon by rapacious Arabs — cue close-up of one poor chap being lightly tapped on the brow with a rifle butt. The racial politics are made clear — black people make good servants, but Arabs are untrustworthy and will tap you on the cranium with their rifles if given a free hand.
Meanwhile, the shifty archaeologist tries to kill the fervid one after reading the inscription pertaining to the Idol of Death — a figurine depicting a bashful elephant — and we get what may be the most remarkable intertitle of 1919 —
Not only is it spelled out in hieroglyphs, but it’s accompanied by a garter snake. Of course Egyptian temples are constantly a-slither with snakes, as we know from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. What the poor things feed on is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the lack of vittles explains why they always looks so thin.
The movie provides its own translation of this sacred text, but I think we should get Kristin Thompson to work on it, then we can compare both versions and see who is the best Egyptologist, Thompson or J. Grubb Alexander.
Anyhow, something or other happens and it turns out this is all a story being told by the fervid chap, now well stricken in years, to his anxious daughter. There’s some kind of nonsense about eight ceremonial daggers which open a stone vault, but the charming domestic scene keeps getting interrupted by STARING EYES ~
Well, you can see how that might cause you to lose the thread of the conversation. What with being under an Egyptian curse and all, the Professor is concerned, and his daughter fortunately remembers that Carter Holmes, world-renowned criminologist, lives next door (with his Scottish lieutenant, Sandy McNab) and ventures forth to get him.
Now things get really interesting — while she’s gone, disturbing Mr Holmes amid his test tubes, pops is knifed to death by a masked assailant, but the bit of film this occurred in is now missing. I suspect a conspiracy. The “reconstruction” of the missing footage consists of random, Jesus Franco type zoom-ins on freeze frames, explanatory titles, and constant cutaways to the staring eyes. Oh, and a bit of CGI lens flare is added to one shot. It’s a magnificent job, arguably improving on the original sequence, although naturally that’s hard to be definite about since it’s missing.
Anyhow, the girl fetches Holmes, and there’s an odd bit involving a mysterious voice which whispers A-B-E-F-A-C-E at him. In such a situation, you or I might blunder badly by trying to locate the source of the voice, but our Carter, who may well be schizophrenic, accepts it as a given and merely tries to interpret its gnomic utterance. This leads him to a portrait of Lincoln on the wall which he cheerfully mutilates, obtaining a valuable clew for his troubles.
Then he has a punch-up with the masked fellow, later identified as Monsieur X. No pushover, Carter knocks X out a window — but the bounder vanishes from the sidewalk like Michael Myers at the end of HALLOWEEN. Then the girl is kidnapped. Then Carter gets a note telling him to report to 33 Folsom Street by midnight or else she’ll be killed. Then he goes there and sees the staring eyes floating out of the wallpaper. Then sinister hands reach through the wall behind him clutching irons gyves. Then we see the girl, facing sacrifice at the hands of a mysterious sect ~
Clearly, TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS is some kind of demented masterpiece and I have to watch all five hours of it or else I’ll never sleep again. Clearly I’m going to dole it out on a weekly basis as I did with THE MASTER MYSTERY, thus duplicating the authentic movie serial experience.
Director Duke Worne, a former B-list actor, was making his debut here, and he does a fine job, eliciting the required hambone performances and keeping the pace frantic and the action lurid. A shame the cinematographer isn’t credited, as there’s fine atmospheric work going on, and the design, though still relying on hand-painted flats some of the time, is exotic and atmospheric (there’s even a close-up of a dagger which is a painting, for some reason).
Screenwriter J. Grubb Alexander, apparently making the stuff up as he goes along, seems like a real Pat Hobby character, churning out silent thrillers and then foundering somewhat in the talkie era — his most famous credit there is the universally deplored (yet strangely loved) John Barrymore MOBY DICK, the one which adds romantic interest and pre-code dirty jokes. He also wrote for Barrymore on SVENGALI and THE MAD GENIUS, evincing a fine gift for inappropriate comic relief. His tone seems more surefooted in THE TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS.
I hope you’ll join me next week for the next exciting episode. See You Next Wednesday!