The Trail of the Octopus (1919): Chills and Thrills from Yesteryear

Trail of the Octopus (1919)

Long thought lost, The Trail of the Octopus is a 15-chapter silent serial released in 1919, directed by Duke Worne, starring silent actors Ben Wilson as Carter Holmes and Neva Gerber as Ruth Stanhope. It has not been presented in its entirety in over 90 years, apart from one showing at the Library of Congress. The story line, provided by Eric Stedman of The Serial Squadron, is as follows:

Dr. Reid Stanhope, a noted scientist, and Raoul Bornay, a Frenchman of questionable standing, set out upon an expedition to explore the mysteries of ancient Egypt. With their caravan of natives and camels, they pierce the very heart of the great Sahara Desert in their search for the Temple of Death and the sacred Talisman of Set, both considered mythological by everyone except Dr. Stanhope. After weeks of searching, they discover a sarcophagus upon which hieroglyphics read: ”He that toucheth or taketh away the Sacred Talisman of Set will bathe his hands in human blood.”

Reaching inside the sarcophagus, Stanhope takes out the Sacred Talisman which is also known as the Devil’s Trademark – the cloven hoof of Satan. From the moment the Talisman is released, murder and destruction run rampant. Stanhope is forced to kill Bornay when attacked by him and Bornay’s final words are “Don’t think you killed a friend – they sent me to get you and the Talisman.” Who “they” are provides the foundation for the story of the rest of the serial, which takes place after Stanhope returned to civilization.

When we pick up the story from there, we see Stanhope telling his niece Ruth he has never had a moment’s peace since he hid the Devil’s Trademark in a rock vault – he’s been haunted by the sudden mysterious appearance of a pair of uncanny looking eyes. While Dr. Stanhope tells the story, a thunderstorm arises and the “eyes” appear outside. He tells Ruth she must get rid of the Talisman as it endangers her life. He takes a dagger from a drawer and says, “Eight other daggers like this are in the hands of eight fellow scientists for safe-keeping. You must have all of them to get the combination of the rock vault, in which is hidden the sacred Talisman.”

When Stanhope receives a telephone call from the mysterious masked Monsieur X, who tells him that his friend, Professor Hubbard, one of the scientists, is dead, Ruth runs across the street to call on Carter Holmes, the criminologist, taking the dagger with her. Stanhope’s scream in the distance begins a chain of events that leads to the kidnapping of Ruth by a clan of Devil Worshippers headed by a sorceress named Madame Zora, and a three-way battle between Holmes, the Devil-cult, and an Asian mastermind known as the Octopus to possess the Talisman by collecting the remaining daggers and placing them together in a cliffside vault that will reveal its secret.

An extremely atmospheric serial, heavily influenced by aspects of the 1916 serial The Mysteries Of Myra (the Devil-cult with its crystal ball, and characters who disappear into astral form), and anticipating Republic’s 1940 cliffhanger Drums Of Fu Manchu with its noir-ish look, The Trail of the Octopus changes location and emphasis many times but remains generally in early pulp/detective/horror mode throughout, with more than the occasional element of the paranormal thrown in to kick the mystery up a notch.

Neva Gerber as Ruth Stanhope

Neva Gerber in the Trail of the Octopus (1919)

The source material for this new DVD transfer is the original and only surviving 35mm positive print from the Library of Congress, obtained and donated by Henry Miyamoto, producer of the first SerialFest activity for the Serial Squadron in Toronto, Canada in 2001. The picture is very sharp with occasional minor issues of focus going in and out mainly in Episode One due to age and warping of the print. The framegrab above is a capture from the new digital transfer. The DVD release was sponsored by Mr. Miyamoto and a very high quality restoration was done by The Serial Squadron’s Eric Stedman with an added lively musical score by Kevin Mcleod.

One chapter of the serial, Episode Nine, is not known to exist in any form anywhere but a  nine-minute re-creation of the episode using video, title card developed from the original plot summary, and stills is included. The DVD release includes all 15 existing chapters, including this re-created one.

And now, get an insight into this rare gem by watching the first reel from Chapter One of The Trail of the Octopus:

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Here are a few more articles about silent film:

Who’s Your Favorite Silent Film Star?

Safety Last (1923): Silent Movie Review

Women Behind the Camera: Silent Cinema

It (1927) Starring Clara Bow Movie Review

The Serial Squadron, created in 1998 by Eric Stedman, is a place for fans of classic cliffhangers to read or share information about radio, TV and silent and sound movie serials. You’re invited to join in, participate, and contribute… and have some fun while you’re at it.