Archive for Trail of the Octopus

The Sunday Intertitle: Unholy Trinity

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2014 by dcairns


OFFICER 444 (1926), a Ben Wilson Chapter Film — which is to say, a movie serial from the people  — the exact people! — who brought you TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS. Same star, Wilson, and co-star, Neva Gerber. Most interesting credit is co-cinematographer Joe Walker, who went on to do big things with Capra. Also of mild interest — the show puts on a song and dance about casting August Vollmer, Berkeley police chief, as himself.

It may be the late silent era but this serial is still in thrall to the conventions of 1914, so we get a villain, “The FROG” — who is an exact replica of The Clutching Hand from THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE, only he doesn’t wear a mask. An intertitle makes a point of saying we shouldn’t feel sorry for him just because he’s disabled — some of these “disabled” types are crafty buggers.


In fact, it quickly becomes clear that The FROG can shuck off his hunched back and twisted limbs whenever he wants, in order to assume the guise of the chairman of the Amalgamated Society of Scientists (top).

It’s a brilliant disguise — Groucho mustache and eyebrows, coke-bottle glasses, skull-cap and cape. Obviously a top scientist.


The FROG is assisted by “Dago Frank,” your basic ethnic henchman type, and by “The VULTURE”, a sultry vamp who sometimes works in drag as a boy. Episode Two (“Human Rats”) has a subversive moment where The VULTURE in drag meets the heroine, who is also attired as a boy. The possibilities could have been pursued further if you ask me.

So there you have it — what’s nice about the serial is it’s about an average street cop battling, essentially, supervillains. What’s less nice is that the villains are an unholy alliance of a cripple/scientist, an Italian, and a woman/tranny. All the most untrustworthy types banded together. (And only one man can stop them!)


Astral Projection Booth; or, Carter Beats the Devil

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2013 by dcairns

I’m in London today on a Mission of Great Importance. More later! But meanwhile ~


Episode 15 of our serial photoplay and THE TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS finally slithers to its corruscating conclusion. Even more excitingly, part of the final episode is missing, thus retaining that all-important sense of mystery and frustration. The lost sequence means we can never know the identity and fate of masked malefactor Monsieur X… those responsible for restoring the serial insert a few shots culled from elsewhere and one bogus special effect, and while leaving X’s ID unsolved, suggest that after a hypnotic duel with oriental mastermind Wang Foo, X is dragged off into another dimension by spectral hands.

I call bullshit on that! You just didn’t get talk of other dimensions in 1919 serials. I have my own theories.


First, the mystery man’s secret identity — for weeks I was convinced he must be Raoul Bornay, the shifty Tunisian gentleman. But Bornay perished several episodes ago, slain by an envenomed knife handle in Montmartre. Still, I don’t think I’m being unfair to serial photoplaywright J. Grubb Alexander when I suggest that he might stoop to resurrecting a slain character. In fact, he has already done so, three times in this serial.

But there’s another strong possibility, and it has the advantage of also clearing up the question of X’s fate. What if Monsieur X was Wang Foo all along? We know that Foo can bilocate using his “atomic form,” and this bilocation ability becomes central to the plot in this final installment. The only puzzle would be the incidents when Wang Foo and Monsieur X seems to be working to different agendas. But that could easily be explained away as bad writing, which already explains so much in this series.

Anyway, last we saw, Ruth Stanhope was being menaced by a dwarf behind a sofa. However, to all our surprise I’m sure, he fails to stab her to death, and another mystery is cleared up when the disembodied eyes which have been peeping in at us since episode one appear again and turn out to belong to Omar, Professor Stanhope’s manservant, unseen since the first episode.  Omar dispatches the stunted “ape-man” but is himself felled by a poisoned dart, thus closing that loophole neatly. It’s a thrilling action sequence and I suggest we watch it together ~

I like the dainty way Omar wipes his hands after they’ve encircled the ape-man’s unwashed throat.


And featuring Woodrow Wilson as himself!

Seriously, ever-resourceful/opportunistic director Duke Worne splices in a bit of actuality film of the visiting prez.

What else? Professor Stanhope is rescued and his bearded kidnapper (the false Monsieur X, the guy who seemed to die in episode 1) is arrested. Ruth escapes too.

Meanwhile, Wang Foo succeeds in opening the stone safe with the last of the sacrificial daggers we’ve been chasing since episode one. Conveniently forgetting the crucial symbols (or “symbals”) tattooed on Professor Stanhope’s arm, he uses the ancient Egyptian figurine stashed there to jumpstart his astral projection booth, where he can mass-produce spectral clones of himself to go forth and do his evil eastern bidding. He also plans to cause a blackout, during which his maxi-me army will loot the city using a dirigible fleet.

Waitaminute, dirigible fleet? Did J Grubb Alexander just pull another deus ex machine from his capacious ass? It must be like a TARDIS in there. Like a vast library containing the plots of everything ever written. The Library of Alexander. Up his ass. I hope science found a way to extract it after his death.


To my delight, the zeppelin raid is rendered using the medium of cut-out animation, a technique hitherto unseen in any serial photoplay I know of. It’s certainly a first for this one. OCTOPUS keeps on giving.

Anyhow, Carter traces Wang Foo to his lair, where the busy megalomaniac is still cranking out astral replicas of himself. The crafty stereotype promptly turns suicide bomber, tugging a lever which, he explains, will cause a cylinder to fill up with “radio gas” so that both men will be “blown to atoms” ~


Wait a minute — that says “down to atoms.” I guess by Episode 15 J. Grubb Alexander’s faithful spellcheck (the 1919 version of spellcheck was known as “Mrs Alexander”) was worn out.

As Wang Foo, Al Ernest Garcia, persistently billed as “Earnest Garcia,” drops his inscrutable act and suddenly starts cackling like a stereotyped Mexican bandit. His oriental moustache morphs before our eyes into something Alfonso Bedoya would be proud to sport. And is that a gold tooth, or just a missing tooth?

The misspelled Mexican actually had a more distinguished career than anyone else associated with OCTO, appearing for Chaplin in THE IDLE CLASS, THE GOLD RUSH, THE CIRCUS, CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES (as president of the Electro Steel Corps).

Anyway, radio gas, yes. This was the age, you’ll remember, when the word “radio” was irresistibly futuristic and jargon-y, able to enhance any sentence or phrase with a mystical glamour, as in “Radio City Music Hall.” Modern equivalents might be words such as “sharknado,” “sideboob” and “Belieber.” I’m wondering how a gas-powered radio might function, and am forced to imagine the strange apparatus used in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, whereby messages are sent through the gas mains using pulsations in the pressure which can be detected by spies wearing gas masks connected to the supply. Interestingly, the novel ends around the time of TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS…

Carter Holmes escapes death! By jumping out the window. Big explosion, and the primal Wang staggers about in a classic barnstormer’s death scene, before expiring amid rubble. His clones fade from existence via a series of dissolves, and America is made safe.

Coda: Duke Worne enlists a lookalikey Woodrow Wilson to pop in at the end and congratulate the heroes for “defeating this gigantic octopus” which menaced San Francisco. I fear the faux-Woodrow is confusing this serial with the plot of IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.

The End.

With this power called ‘Dynolife’

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on July 17, 2013 by dcairns


Chapter 14 of our serial photoplay, TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS — the penultimate chapter — and the titles writer is frankly exhausted, his spelling and grammar disintegrating like a Damon Lindelof screenplay under critical scrutiny. Still, The House of Shadows is a good title for this blog to play host to.

We were left with an unusual cliffhanger last week. While Ruth Stanhope is in mortal peril as usual, the threat involving Carter Homes, master criminologist, is not one hanging over him personally, but one he has set up to electrocute the fiendish Dr Wang Foo. Can we bring ourselves to feel much anxiety over his fate? Perhaps not, but after thirteen episodes I’ve given up hope of anything really appalling happening to Carter, so at least this provides variety.

Anyhow, the plan works and soon Wang Foo is smouldering at gunpoint in an armchair, nerve-endings frazzled by several thousand volts. Things have been getting complicated in the storyline, so that the filmmakers are obliged to spend the first quarter of the episode recapping the various threads interwoven last week.


Before our terrified eyes, Ruth is threatened with the deadly oriental black fever, but another pair of eyes, those disembodied ones that keep cropping up, come glowing through the wallpaper and cure vamp Zora Rularde of Wang Foo’s devilish mind control — this results in her expiring of the oriental fever herself but without infecting Ruth.

Another directorial flourish — as Wang Foo, not quite vanquished, tries to hypnotize Carter Holmes, director Duke Worne cuts back and forth incessantly, creeping in to closer and closer views of his staring antagonists. It’s Hitchcock meets Leone! And then Carter, who has failed miserably throughout the series, basically pisses his pants and drops the revolver, bamboozled by the psychic assault. Recovering slightly, he pulls a trick with the lights, distracts Foo, and grabs the gun again, but the Chinese mastermind fades from view — merely an astral projection from a recumbent Wang Foo back at his headquarters. Curses!

Comedy chubster Sandy McNab turns up with news of where Prof Stanhope has been abducted to (Stanhope shares his daughter’s predilection for being kidnapped — perhaps it’s genetic). Leaving the electrical dagger trap in place, Carter rushes off.


Raoul Bornay prepares a horrible yet absurd torture for Prof Stanhope.

Big raid on Wang Foo’s joss house! But he’s not there. Carter just can’t catch a break.


But — Abdoul the cultist rug merchant gets electrocuted — in a rather Lynchian visual — while reaching for the booby trapped dagger. Hilarious scene of Carter interrogating the rigid Satanist. And finally, the master plot is “explained” ~


Abdoul plays the race card ~


Abdoul is so stiffened from his electrocution they have to pose him like an action figure to get the handcuffs on. That’s what happens when you mess with an ace criminologist.

Now Carter learns that there’s only one sacrificial dagger still at liberty. Forgetting that he could simply blow up the cave where the safe is hidden which the daggers open, perhaps using a charge of trinitrotruol, he resolves to make safe the final blade. Given his track record, I’m ready to start digging a grave for San Francisco’s last professor. It’s no accident, it seems to me, that Carter’s sidekick Sandy McNab (William Dyer) is best known for playing a grave-digger in FRANKENSTEIN — it’s the main labour involved in assisting Carter.


For no reason, even though he believes Ruth has been infected with a deadly virus, Wang Foo instructs his simian henchman to stab her with a tiny dagger. Which leads to an appropriately menacing cliffhanger ~


To Be Concluded!