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TENTACOLI (1977)

There must be something monstrous out there; monstrous and infernal.




  Director:
 
Ovidio G. Assonitis

  Starring: 
Bo Hopkins, John Huston, Shelley Winters, Delia Boccardo, Henry Fonda, Claude Akins, Cesare Danova, Alan Boyd, Sherry Buchanan, Alessandro Poggi, Roberto Poggi, Helena Mäkelä, Philip Dallas, Leonard C. Lightfoot, Patrick Mulvihill

  Screenplay: 
Steven W. Carabatsos, Tito Carpi, Jerome Max and Sonia Molteni (uncredited)

Synopsis:  By a Californian shoreline, a young mother chatting to a friend looks around to discover that her baby has disappeared. Its pram, in which it was strapped, is found floating in the water nearby, but there is no sign of the child.... On the docks, Bill Sullivan (Patrick Mulvihill) radios the Coast Guard for a weather report before setting to work scrubbing the deck of his boat. A short time later, a workmate of Bill’s hears a strange noise. Upon investigating, he discovers that the sailor has disappeared – only to reappear as a horribly mangled corpse, before the horrified eyes of two teenagers on a nearby pier. Sheriff Robards (Claude Akins) is examining the body down by the docks when he approached by journalist Ned Turner (John Huston), who observes that Bill Sullivan’s injuries are similar to those suffered by the baby. A young police officer (Leonard C. Lightfoot) suggests that pumping equipment operated by Trojan Industries, a company that is building a tunnel under the bay, might be responsible for the physical damage suffered by the victims. However, he cannot explain how the baby got into the water. Robards asks Turner to refrain from playing up the sensational aspects of the story. Returning to the family house he shares with his sister, Tillie (Shelley Winters), and her young son, Tommy (Alessandro Poggi), Turner works through the night to try and develop a theory about the accidents, but cannot think of a cogent explanation for them. Nevertheless, the journalist’s story subsequently makes veiled reference to the activities in the bay, to the anger of the head of Trojan Industries. Mr Whitehead (Henry Fonda) summons John Corey (Cesare Danova), his second-in-command, to his house, demanding to know whether there is the slightest truth in Turner’s insinuations, which Corey flatly denies. At the morgue, the coroner (Philip Dallas) tells Robards that not only was Bill Sullivan’s flesh stripped from his bones, but that most of his cartilage was gone, as well as his bone marrow. Robards tells Turner that two divers in the employ of leading marine biologist Will Gleason (Bo Hopkins), from the California Oceanographic Institute, will be examining the construction site. Turner goes to speak to Gleason himself, learning that the biologist recently suffered the bends during a diving accident and has been ordered to stay out of the water. Working from a Trojan Industries boat, the two divers go down to the bay floor in a diving bell; from there, they venture out to examine the area, and find that some of the company’s electronic equipment has been smashed. Suddenly, there is a small rock-fall from a nearby crevice. The divers investigate, and without warning one of them is engulfed in a cloud of ink.... The second diver flees for the safety of the diving-bell, radioing a frantic cry to be brought back up. On the boat, the men leap into action, but halfway up the equipment grinds to a halt. In the bell, the diver looks on in terror as water begins to pour in through the structure’s buckling seams – and as a single gigantic eyeball glares in through a porthole. Up above, the horrified workmen can only stare helplessly as the water erupts, and as the bell’s severed airline thrashes wildly about....

Comments:  Okay, I’m going to start this review with a spoiler, and with a disclaimer – at least of sorts. Tentacoli, one of the countless post-Jaws killer animal films, climaxes with the killing of a gigantic octopus by two orcas – in a scene that features the real killing of a real octopus. As bad as this is, it is even worse in context, since so many of Tentacles’ effects are so obviously phony; by which I don’t mean they are, obviously, phony; I mean they are obviously phony. The film’s climax has the orcas played by hand-puppets; a scene in which people are swept overboard features two patent mannequins; while a mangled corpse is so badly realised, the image is blurred in a failed attempt to disguise the fact. Surrounded by so much crudely-executed fakery, the real octopus killing is as unforgiveable as it is repulsive. However – as regular visitors would know, I have said plenty on this subject already, possibly more than I needed to; so I don’t intend to go over the same ground yet again. Instead, I’ll simply say this: it is despicable, and so are the people responsible for it.

Fun fact: there is no language in which the word "tentacles" isn't adorable.
[Also: Box Picture! Box Picture!]

And just who are the people responsible? Well, it comes as no particular surprise to find the credits for Tentacoli opening with a card reading Samuel Z. Arkoff presents. James H, Nicholson. Arkoff’s partner at AIP for so many years, died in 1972; and by 1977, AIP was on the slippery slope that would lead ultimately to the fatal miscalculation of Meteor, the selling of the company to Filmways, and Sam Arkoff’s own retirement. In Tentacoli, Arkoff’s partner-in-crime was the Egyptian-born Greek director Ovidio Assonitis. It is not difficult to understand why Assonitis was tagged for this particular job: he had already helmed the astonishingly lucrative Exorcist rip-off, Chi Sei? (marketed in America, and subsequently sued, under the title Beyond The Door), and must have seemed like the ideal person to direct an equally unabashed Jaws rip-off. However, this too would prove a miscalculation. While Chi Sei? is, in spite of its myriad faults, a gleefully energetic exercise in vulgarity, Tentacoli is relentlessly mediocre, neither good enough simply to entertain, nor bad enough to---well, simply to entertain. It is tasteless, granted, but not tasteless enough to make a genuine bid for the exploitation market. For most of its running-time it just limps along, its oddly unconnected character scenes strung together with lengthy inserts of swimming, boating and scuba-diving that a far better director than Assonitis would have struggled to make exciting. One or two decently executed sequences, a few unintentional snickers and a couple of moments of incredible crassness are not enough to rescue the film from the thoroughly condemnatory reaction, meh.

Despite its American backing, and a cast top-heavy with American guest stars, Tentacoli feels like a Euro-production, and never more so than during its opening sequence. The casual killing of small children is not exactly what you expect to find in American films; not even in American exploitation films. The precedent here is, of course, the death of Alex Kintner in Jaws; but that, far from being casual, is a pivotal moment in the story, and is handled with all the gravity and care that such a dramatic choice demands. Tentacoli’s opening kill scene, conversely, is a throw-away moment involving characters we never see again. That said, the whole thing is, visually, handled with unexpected cleverness – even with tact. Sitting on a grass verge near the shoreline, a young mother is distracted from her baby when a friend calls to her; and, leaving the child strapped in its pram, she steps off the verge and crosses the road to chat by her friend’s car. We see the two in close-up, with the baby in the background, our view of the child interrupted by passing traffic – until a bus rumbles by, after which it simply isn’t there. Its pram is floating in the water below the verge, however....

 

I suppose, if you must do it....

The horror of this sequence lies not only in the death of the baby, but in its grasp of what, tragically, too many parents discover, that it needs only a moment’s misjudgement or carelessness to cost a child its life. The actions of the mother here comprise one such moment. The camera angle does her no favours: she is closer to the child than it appears; while it is strapped into a pram with the brakes on, sitting on a stretch of ground with no-one else around. You can understand, even forgive, the momentary lapse. But frankly, a sense of compassion here only makes the whole thing worse: the film that follows is no more invested in this child, or its bereaved mother, than it is in any of the other people it tosses to its titular beast.

Actually, I was getting ahead of myself by calling this the opening sequence of the film. It is, more correctly, the opening sequence of the film proper; it is preceded by a credits sequence that chillingly sets the scene for much that is to follow, inasmuch as it is numbingly dull. After a few disorienting moments, we realise that we are travelling inside a taxi, although we see neither driver nor passenger; we do catch the occasional glimpse of the former’s right hand, however. Rather than concentrate on either character, the camera drops slightly; and it, and we, stare at the taxi’s radio-set....for a full minute of screen-time.

There is in fact a reason for the camera’s interest in the radio-set, but the film will be almost halfway over by the time it deigns to share that reason with us, and by that time more than a few viewers will, I’m afraid, be beyond caring. A more successful bit of foreshadowing is a glimpse of a billboard advertising the “21st Annual Solana Beach Junior Regatta”; you don’t even have to be watching a Jaws rip-off to find that ominous.

Oh, I'm sure that won't turn out to be in any way significant.

The credit sequence concludes as oddly as it is executed. The taxi stops, and the passenger gets out. The camera stays at ground-level, and we observe that he is wearing a simply hideous pair of shoes; also that he limps. These two signifiers must be important in some way, right? – they must reappear later, at a dramatic moment. Wrong. The owner of the hideous shoes limps off-screen, never to be seen again; and the camera instead seeks out the doomed mother and baby.

It is fitting that Ovidio Assonitis’ producer’s credit should appear over our lengthy gawp at the taxi’s radio-set, and his director’s credit (as “Oliver Hellman”) over the hideous shoes. Those two bizarrely inappropriate artistic choices sum up Tentacoli as well as anything could, and it is jolly sporting of Mr Assonitis to admit so frankly who exactly was responsible for them.

Our next stop is the local docks, where Bill Sullivan, a sailor with one wooden leg, works on a boat. (I’m sure I’m not the first person to wonder whether Bill could be our limping man, but again, the film ain’t telling.) A strange noise heralds Bill’s disappearance; a friend of his stares in horrified confusion as the bucket he was using in his work is dragged through and then under the water. A bit further down the coast, two teenagers get the shock of their lives when Bill’s mangled corpse puts in an abrupt appearance. This blatant call-back to Jaws is not, to put it mildly, one of the film’s more convincing aspects.

 

A rare case of "truth in advertising" in an AIP film.

Some time later – hours later, in fact; it was broad daylight when Bill’s body turned up, and now it’s full night, although the body hasn’t been removed yet – we watch yet another pair of shoes wander down to the waterfront. Thankfully, this footwear turns out to be attached to someone, namely journalist Ned Turner – with John Huston, the first of Tentacoli’s blow-the-budget guest stars, putting in an appearance. Turner mentions to the sheriff that he has just come from examining the dead baby’s body – I suppose we should be grateful we were spared that scene – and the two men agree that the injuries on the two are similar. There is also an insistence here upon the bodies being stripped to the bone, literally skeletonised, that makes it pretty obvious that these scenes were shot before Bill Sullivan’s unconvincing corpse was knocked together, since the verbal description in no way matches what we just saw – the blurring of the image notwithstanding.

It is a young policeman on the scene who suggests that the construction, or excavation, being carried out in the harbour by Trojan Industries might have something to do with the deaths. I may say here that we never really do find out just what the company is trying to do out in the harbour, or what “the tunnel” is for. Turner agrees that getting caught in an industrial pump might account for the injuries, but it hardly explains how the baby got into the water in the first place; something that has everyone stumped.

Well – everyone, that is, not present for the ominous waterline POV shot that preceded the baby’s disappearance.

*Faces blurred to protect the special effects artists.

The following morning finds Turner still trying to put together a convincing theory. It also introduces Tentacoli’s second guest star, Shelley Winters, who – as was so often the case over the course of her career, poor Shell – really gets the short end of the stick here. Not content with casting her as a much-married, sexually voracious divorcee, the producers also have her playing Ned Turner’s older sister (Huston was fourteen years Winters’ senior), while forcing her into what is, even for the mid-seventies, a thoroughly hideous array of clothing.

Evidently, Turner’s night-time ruminations brought him no counsel, because he falls back upon the young cop’s theory: the story Turner subsequently files contains enough hints of Trojan Industries’ involvement in the two freak deaths to raise the ire of company president Mr Whitehead – out third guest star, Henry Fonda, in what amounts to no more than a cameo (or, as the credits prefer to put it, a SPECIAL APPEARANCE). Whitehead is not pleased with what he reads, and summons his underling, Corey, demanding reassurance about Turner’s insinuation.

Post-Jaws, the EEE-vil capitalist would become a stock fixture in killer animal films, a wildly exaggerated rendering of their model, Larry Vaughn, whose refusal to close Amity’s beaches would also recur in increasingly strange forms down through the years. (Grizzly’s refusal to close the National Park is still my favourite, though.) Curiously, in this respect Tentacoli refuses to run with the herd. Far from putting profits ahead of lives, Whitehead is honestly concerned about his project’s possible involvement, and helps with the investigation. Although there is a passing reference to the tunnel project’s importance to the local community, no-one tries to cover up the deaths or refuses to admit that the project could somehow be responsible. (Mind you, when Whitehead eventually learns that Corey’s actions are probably responsible for everything, he just tells him to cut it out. He doesn’t even sack him!) Similarly, when Ned Turner is asked by the sheriff to refrain from sensationalising the first two deaths, he complies (his unsubstantiated references to Trojan Industries notwithstanding), later promising to run his stories past the sheriff before submitting them. All of this reasonable, credible behaviour ought to be praiseworthy, but in context it seems just another instance of Tentacoli’s general lethargy; as if its four – count ’em, four – screenwriters couldn’t even work up sufficient energy to resort to the usual hysteria and caricature.

"You do realise that we have four Oscars and fifteen nominations between us, right?"
"Yeah, it sucks; but I guess the show must go on, huh?"

After a brief scuba-diving interlude, we return to Ned Turner, who wanders in while the coroner is reporting to the sheriff. When the coroner is unable to supply an explanation for the “vacuum effect” that must have caused the victims’ injuries, Turner observes that there must be something “monstrous and infernal” in the water. The sheriff here reveals that Will Gleason, of the California Oceanographic Institute, is sending two divers to inspect and report upon the effects of the tunnel construction. Turner praises this move, but decides to talk to Gleason himself. This introduces what passes for Tentacoli’s “hero”. Clearly, the guest stars ate up the vast majority of the film’s acting budget, because if you tried you could hardly find a less engaging or charismatic hero than Bo Hopkins’ Will Gleason. Granted, Gleason hasn’t much to be cheerful about when we meet him – and he’ll have less by the time the film is over – but Bo Hopkins’ presence here is like an eddy of suck in the centre of the story. The script makes an effort to win our favour by giving Gleason a triumph-over-adversity past and a tragic present, but it’s pushing it uphill.

The good news, however, is that Will Gleason comes accessorised by – SUBTLE PLOT POINT!! – two trained orcas. Their presence does Bo Hopkins no favours, however: sharing his scenes with these thoroughly engaging animals makes his screen personality seem like even more of a black hole.

Turner catches up with Gleason and needles him over his sending in his divers instead of going himself, and we learn that a recent accident has left the marine biologist with damaged lungs, a result of the bends. However, Gleason’s reluctance to get personally involved becomes moot when his divers become victims #3 and #4; the latter’s death being one of the film’s few really effective set-pieces. First, however, we have to suffer through more scuba-diving, as Gleason’s men are lowered to the bay floor in a diving-bell from a Trojan Industries ship. We note, perhaps in some surprise, the company’s willingness to participate in the investigation – except that one diver then comments on Corey’s attempt to buy the two of them off, and prevent the dive. At length (oy, length), the divers find that some of the company’s electronic equipment has been smashed. During this sequence, we have cut away intermittently to POV shots emanating from a crevice in some nearby rocks; and now some debris erupts from that crevice, attracting the divers’ attention. They draw near to investigate. We get a couple of quick flashes of writhing tentacles, and then one of the men is engulfed in a cloud of ink. The other retreats in haste – or at least, as much “haste” as is possible in a scuba-diving scene.

(Tentacoli’s conviction that octopuses use their ink as an offensive weapon is one of its more amusing touches.)

The charismatic star of Tentacoli. (Seen here with Bo Hopkins.)

The second diver makes it back to the diving-bell and scrambles inside, grabbing the two-way radio and shrieking to be taken up at once, but is too panicked to give any more coherent an account of events than, “I couldn’t do a thing to help him! He was sucked right in!” – an account that conveniently does nothing to dispense with the underwater pump theory of the various tragedies. The diving-bell is halfway to the surface when it comes to a literally grinding halt. The next instant, the seams of the diving-bell begin to give way, water pouring in through the gaps; and we get the single best moment in the entire film when the terrified diver looks around to see one gigantic eyeball gazing at him through a porthole....

And then its time for – groan – some character scenes. First, Turner catches up with Corey, but gets nothing out of him; the point of this exchange is really to let us know that in the wake of the divers’ deaths. Gleason and his justifiably nervous wife, Vicky, are expected in town. We then cut to Tillie Turner, who is – mwoo-ha-ha! – entering her son, Tommy, and his somewhat younger friend, Jamie, in the regatta; and I am, heaven help me, compelled into defending Tentacoli.

The failure to call off the regatta in the wake of the harbour deaths generally attracts critical opprobrium, but in fact this scene reveals that The Authorities aren’t being quite as homicidally negligent as it seems. It is hardly surprising that people tend to miss this point, since it is thrown away in the middle of an unnecessarily protracted and tiresome dialogue scene (and in fact, I never noticed it on any previous viewing), but the regatta is not being held at the site of the tragedies. This seaside resort isn’t “Solana Beach”; actually, I don’t think the town is ever named in dialogue, but if the film’s publicity is to be believed, it carries the profoundly unimaginative name of “Ocean Beach”. Solana Beach, where the regatta is held, is a further fifty miles down the coast. So while the regatta will, of course, End In Tears, its staging is not quite the usual Jaws rip-off example of Evil Capitalists Putting Profit Ahead Of Public Safety. Likewise, Ned Turner’s failure to mention to his sister and his regatta-bound nephew the theory of the tragedies that he will shortly develop is a little less criminally remiss than it appears at first glance.

When octopuses play "I spy", by God, they mean it.

And really, this whole piece of writing sums up Tentacoli to a tee. It is obvious that the writers went to considerable effort to make their story logical and reasonable, and to let the audience know it....but the only result was an incredible tedium and a lot of distracted viewers.

(Upon reflection, I think the real reason that the Solana Beach plot-point so often slips by is the sheer impossibility of focussing the attention on anything in this scene but....Shelley Winters’ hat. Among all the other indignities suffered in the course of making Tentacoli, here poor Shelley is forced into wearing the most grotesquely oversized sombrero you could possibly imagine. You really do get the feeling that the film’s 2.35 cinematography ratio was chosen primarily to accommodate it.)

Mind you, while the writers were taking such care with the plot-points of their story, we notice that they were taking no care whatsoever with their character identities, with some wonderfully sloppy moments providing a few welcome chuckles. First of all, in what may have been intentional, Tommy Turner’s friend calls his mother, “Mrs Turner.” Now, I guess Tillie may have gone back to her maiden name after an unspecified number of failed marriages (enough that she has trouble remembering Tommy’s surname!), but the fact that she is currently sharing the house of a Mr Turner lends this an icky edge. Then there’s the way that the infant victim of the opening scene changes sex halfway through the film: it starts off as a boy called Billy, but the time the sheriff is doing a mid-film summation, we’re hearing about “her” carriage and that “she” didn’t jump. My favourite moment, however, comes during the inevitable regatta disaster, when Tillie is trying to contact Tommy and Jamie via walkie-talkie. Growing increasingly panicked at their failure to respond, Tillie finally blurts, “Jamie, you answer your mother!” Well, maybe he would, if he were talking to his mother! We are left to decide for ourselves whether no-one noticed this particular blooper, or whether they couldn’t be bothered re-shooting, or whether no-one felt up to the task of correcting Shelley Winters. But Shelley wasn’t the only “guest star” to have trouble with her dialogue: later on, Will Gleason has barely voiced his “giant octopus” theory than Ned Turner is asking him what a “giant squid” might do.

"And while the boys are sailing, I'd like to volunteer to provide shade for the spectators."

Over at the hotel, Ned Turner catches the Gleasons before John Corey can, hinting at Trojan’s involvement again, and Corey’s culpability. (“Have you never heard that, ‘Behind every great fortune is a crime’?” comments Turner; a line that, coming from a post-Chinatown John Huston, has a wonderful resonance.) Gleason blows him off, however, and Turner is next seen doing a what-is-the-story-so-far with the sheriff, in the course of which, the penny drops: the common factor in all four deaths is radio. There was a taxi parked next to the grass verge at the time of the baby’s disappearance; Bill Sullivan had just got through radioing the Coast Guard for a weather update; and the divers used two-way to talk to their base ship.

Ohhhhhhhhhhh! say those few viewers who have managed to maintain their focus. So that was the point of that unblinking gawp at the taxi’s radio-set!

Well, yeah, but as “explanations” go, this one has the peculiar merit of not making a single lick of sense. See, what’s going on here is that Corey has been conducting secret underwater tests, which for reasons unexplicated involve operating the company’s seismographs “beyond legal limits”. This has somehow driven the giant octopus mad, so that it has begun to seek out every source of radio waves, and to destroy them – along with anyone unfortunate enough to be in the area. Of course, there are one or two slight problems with this scenario. For one thing, seismographs are receivers, not transmitters; and what they receive are sound waves, not radio waves. It is, besides, one thing to suggest that the octopus was driven mad by Corey’s “illegal frequencies”, and quite another to ask us to believe that it reacted to this by attacking every radio in the vicinity. Oh, and by “vicinity”, I mean “within a fifty mile radius”, as we shall see.

Anyway, most of this isn’t made semi-explicit until later. For now, we have a jump-cut from Ned Turner’s Lightbulb Moment© concerning the radio to Tillie buying walkie-talkies for Tommy and Jamie, so that they can talk to her during the regatta. Mwoo-ha-ha! From there we pass on to the Gleasons, with Vicky trying to dissuade Will from joining the underwater investigation himself. She is unable to, but Will does promise her only to do brief, comparatively shallow dives. From there we cut again to subplot involving Vicky’s kid sister, Judy, and----

Aww, what idiot reattached her vocal cords?

Oh, good lord, it’s Sherry Buchanan! Well!! – it’s certainly been a big week for her around this website! And it’s about to get a whole lot bigger, as Judy and her two male friends, Don and Jack, get stranded at sea when their boat breaks down. Never mind, though. I’m sure they’ll be fine. After all, they just radioed the Coast Guard for help....

Meanwhile, Will’s investigation involves him and his offsider, Mike, surveying the floor of the harbour in a two-man submersible. They observe all the smashed equipment, and then come across the single most bizarre thing in the film: a literal forest of dead fish, each of them carefully balanced on its nose! Truthfully, I have no idea what they were trying to suggest with this. My best guess is that it was an attempt to show the wide-ranging effects of the seismograph: the much larger octopus was driven mad, while the fish were killed. As to the balancing act, well, damned if I know. Gleason has no theory on the gymnastic fish either, but concludes that only a giant octopus could be responsible for the equipment damage.

While waiting for the Coast Guard, Judy sunbathes, and the others go swimming. Now, both of these men are obviously going to die, but Don is fat, so he has to be humiliated first. Thus he suffers through two of Jack’s practical joking fake attacks, which serve to turn the actual attack into a complete anticlimax. We don’t witness Jack’s death. Instead, we are are given the chance to see that the octopus is not only a much better practical joker than he is, but has a refined sense of justice, too. Judy, oblivious to the watery action, is still sunbathing when something bumps the boat, making it rock wildly. This, not unnaturally, gets her attention; and she staggers up just in time to see Jack’s legs, bolt upright, being towed through the water.

Fatal octopus attack or synchronised swimming practice? - you be the judge.

Judy herself is the next target, with the octopus finally coming out into the open. It spreads its arms and wraps them around the boat, tearing off the bow and pulling it partially under the water, as the screaming Judy begins to slide down the deck towards it....

It is just possible that this scene will remind you of a similar one in another film.

A word on the octopus scenes in Tentacoli. Our protagonist is (I presume) supposed to be a specimen of Enteroctopus dofleini, the North Pacific giant octopus, whose range does indeed extend to California. One of the most notable things about this film, another example of its weird (and largely self-defeating) logical-and-sensible manifesto, is that while the animal is massive, there is no suggestion that it is freakishly so: its dimensions seem to lie within standard figures. (That said, it certainly does change size from scene to scene.) While the average weight of these creatures is around 45 kilograms, with a mantle-to-arm-tip length of up to 11 metres, the largest specimen ever officially recorded weighed 273 kilograms; and there are the usual unconfirmed reports of even bigger ones.

While some of the film’s attack scenes were done using model-work (surprisingly good model-work, too, even if its effectiveness is somewhat diluted by the film’s insistence that octopuses cruise along with their eyes above water, the top of their heads cutting through the surface like, oh, I don’t know, some kind of fin), most of the scenes in which the creature appears were achieved using a real octopus in a tank, either interacting with model sets, or back-projected into the scene. Indeed, we see enough of it over the course of the film to grow rather fond of the little beastie – to our ultimate cost. One of the oddest things about Tenacoli is that – surely alone of all the Jaws rip-offs, or even Jaws itself – it goes out of its way to remind us that the octopus’s behaviour is completely out of character; that while this particular individual has been driven to violent insanity, the species is usually gentle, shy and non-confrontational. The film’s insistence upon the thoroughly aberrant nature of the creature’s behaviour, its fundamental victimhood, if you will, makes the staging of the film’s climax all the more bewildering – and all the more vomitous.

So here we have it, folks: an actual octopus's garden.

As night begins to fall, it is, strangely, Vicky who sets out to find the missing Judy. Possibly the Coast Guard called off the search when it started to get dark – would the Coast Guard do that? – but that doesn’t explain why they couldn’t find the remains of the boat in the first place, since they had an idea of its position; at least as good as Vicky could have. (Only then they send the Coast Guard out after Vicky, so that doesn’t work.) Gleason is greeted with the unwelcome news of his wife’s whereabouts when he himself returns from his inspection of the harbour. (“We radioed her back in,” says the sheriff in a misguided attempt at comfort, prompting a disbelieving cry of, “Jesus Christ, radioed!?” from Gleason.) Turner is lurking on the dock, trying to get Gleason to say that the tunnel project is at the root of the various tragedies, but Gleason’s thoughts are understandably elsewhere.

Anyway, Vicky and her two unnamed but self-evidently doomed companions do indeed find the wreck of Don’s boat – and nothing else – and mark its position with a beacon with a flashing red light. Here, too, the script leaves us to draw our own conclusions, which in this case – given subsequent events – is that the marker is also a radio beacon....

This attack sequence is an odd mixture of the careless and the pleasingly effective. On one hand, it is here that the two mannequins I mentioned earlier make their appearance; the insertion of a model boat is equally apparant; while the lighting makes it a little too obvious that the octopus is being back-projected into the scene. (The action is also undermined by the film’s peculiar choice of musical accompaniment: the harpsichord.) However, in spite of these deficiencies the whole thing comes off remarkably well. It starts neatly, with the two men withdrawing into the cabin, leaving Vicky to grieve in private on the deck. It is therefore she who first notices the strange churning of the water – which seems to be coming right at them. The attack sweeps away the two men and leaves Vicky in the ocean, striking out for the first, foundering boat. She has barely made it when the octopus wraps its arms about the wrecked vessel, driving the screaming Vicky back into the water and leaving her clutching at the beacon – but not for long....

And you thought Chrissie Watkins had it rough.

This scene is, granted, staged so as to bring to mind the opening attack scene in Jaws as much as possible, but nevertheless has an impact of its own. Apart from the basic fact of the film’s ruthlessness in killing off the hero’s wife, the entire sequence benefits enormously from the atmospheric use of the red flashing light to illuminate the action. It also gains power, and an extra layer of discomfort, courtesy of the cruel irony that leaves Vicky clinging desperately for her life not to a buoy, but to a radio transmitter.

Which is why it would have been nice if they’d bothered to make that explicit.

(By the way---- Much as I mock, I really do have to give Tentacoli a word of praise here. This scene climaxes with Vicky getting wrapped up in the octopus’s arms and lifted out of the water. The whole thing is done using practical effects, and it is so much more convincing than the scene’s CGI descendants. I’m thinking here not only of films featuring an actual octopus – like, duh, Octopus – but of Anaconda and its ilk, where person after person is wrapped up in CGI coils, and you don’t believe it for an instant.)

Well, whatever the Coast Guard was doing earlier, the next thing we see is the search cutter returning to the harbour. A crowd has gathered along the shore to watch, and the camera weaves its way through to find Will Gleason slumped despairingly at a picnic table. (Hmm.... Given that the Coast Guard must have radioed the bad news, one does wonder how they got back unmolested.) We visit briefly with Whitehead and Corey (“Your only saving grace is that I’d lose so much vital time if I replaced you!”), and then – duh, duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-DAAAH!! – it’s time for the regatta! This big event turns out to be somewhat underwhelming, with a pathetic excuse for a “parade” led by a handful of baton twirlers and an Uncle Sam-ish clown, whose comedy stylings we are intermittently forced to suffer through. (Although thankfully, we never do hear the punchline to the one about the drunken Scotsman covered in cow dung.) Tillie sends Tommy and Jamie on their way with an admonition to make sure they keep their walkie-talkie switched on; and as the competing kids go through their practice runs in their little one- and two-person sailing-boats, we cut back to Ocean Beach – fifty miles up the road, remember – where Turner, Robards and Gleason are mulling over recent events, with Gleason insisting again that only a giant octopus could be responsible, although he can’t say what set it off. (And naturally, Whitehead & Co. aren’t telling.)

You can see how how cancelling this event would just cripple the local economy.

The meeting is interrupted by Mrs Docherty. Who is Mrs Docherty? – Jamie’s mother, a two-job single parent, hence Tillie’s constant supervision of the boy. Anyway, Mrs Docherty has wangled a rare day off, and has come to see whether Ned Turner would like to go with her to watch the regatta?

“MY GOD! THE RACE!!

As I say, this belated penny-drop isn’t as bad as it seems; and what’s more, they have actually closed the beaches....at least for thirty miles either side of Ocean Beach. Turner worriedly questions whether this is enough; and while logic would dictate that, well, of course it bloody is, this is a Jaws rip-off, so the correct answer is, no, of course it bloody isn’t. The sheriff takes action to get the danger zone increased, while Turner tells Gleason sternly that the octopus must be destroyed: “Can you do it?” Gleason assures Turner that he only one thought (and, now that you mention it, only one expression), but fails to share with him what it is. We assume it is of his secret weapon. His beautiful, charismatic, engaging secret weapon.

But first, it’s back to the regatta: to small children in sailboats; to all-American clowns; and to what I am sorely tempted to call the comedy stylings of Ovidio Assonitis. The artistic choices here are downright bizarre, leaving this critical sequence full of random freeze-frames, endless out-of-focus pans over the backs of people’s heads, and completely inappropriate music (that damned harpsichord again!). This is nothing, however, to the bizarre content. Now, I’ve had reason, once or twice, to complain about killer animal films that tease me with a helicopter and then fail to destroy it. Well, Tentacoli doesn’t destroy its helicopter either; but what it does do with it is so flat-out hilarious that I am able to forgive the omission.

You see, the kids are already out on the water by the time that Robards’ message gets through to the Coast Guard. Unable to call them back, the Coast Guard deals with the situation by flying its helicopter just over the kids’ heads....and having someone hang out of the open door holding a sign reading DANGER GO BACK.

(And while it is impossible not to laugh here, the thought of the staging of this scene – low flying helicopter, small boats full of kids, what could possibly go wrong? – sends a shiver down the spine.)

Well, I can't say they didn't try to warn me.

Astonishingly, the Coast Guard’s brilliant manoeuvre fails to have the desired effect. Someone firing of a shotgun, and someone else waving an arm, are more successful in getting the kids’ attention. Not soon enough, though, and the next thing we know an ominous figure is cutting through the water toward the sailboats. Well, sail-boat; the one with the walkie-talkie on board.

Honestly, this whole sequence could hardly have been executed more sloppily. Kids stare in horror, or scream, although cutaways show us that the octopus is nowhere near them. Every single sailboat manages to tip over, but whether this is due to octopus attack, high winds from the helicopter or just plain incompetence, you cannot possibly tell. Still more random freeze-frames break up the, uh, action. (My favourite is the yawning woman: way to generate tension, Ovidio!) On the dock, Tillie is transmitting constantly with her walkie-talkie, being the only person around to have realised that something is wrong. Evidently, the helicopter with the warning sign and the shotgun blast wasn’t enough to distract the rest of the crowd from Uncle Sam, or to lure even one of these responsible adults into glancing at their children from time to time.

The octopus then bears down upon the boat containing Tommy and Jamie, which is (i) the only one still upright, and (ii) well away from all the others; and we are finally rewarded with a brief, glorious visual: the octopus, head above water, its single in-shot eye glaring red as it sets its sights on that damn walkie-talkie....

And at long last, the people onshore notice – no, not the tipped over boats and the screaming kids; not the helicopter; not the shotgun; not the woman having hysterics on the dock – but the Coast Guard’s cutter. They’re still milling around, asking each other what’s wrong with no particular sense of urgency, when the cutter pulls in loaded with rescued children. Moments earlier, Robards and Turner arrived with Mrs Docherty, which is the cue for the revelation that Jamie Docherty is the only casualty of the incident.

"All right, Mr Assonitis - I'm ready for my close-up!"

I suppose, if we wanted to give Ovidio Assonitis the benefit of the doubt, we could argue that in killing off children with whom we are at best tangentially acquainted, he was trying to lessen the impact of those scenes. On the other hand, we should not forget that in Tentacoli’s immediate inspiration, Grizzly, a film otherwise every bit as shameless and exploitative as this one, the one child-victim survives his attack. When a William Girdler production comes across as a model of restraint and good taste in comparison, well, you know there’s something badly wrong.

But what I really want to talk about here is the disturbing influence that Tentacoli seems to have exerted in turn upon its descendents. Quite honestly, with its emphasis upon water sports generally and its regatta in particular, and its plethora of faceless, underage potential victims – and its helicopter Tentacoli looks like nothing so much as a dry run for Jaws 2. The inclusion of the surprise mangled corpse, here an exaggerated version of the floating head in Jaws, is another unpleasant point of resemblance. While the thought that the similarities between the two films might not be unintentional is almost too horrible to contemplate, it is a fact that the screenplay of Jaws 2 was hurriedly rewritten almost in its entirety after principle photography had begun, when the first version of the script, which spent infinitely more time on land with The Mob than it did in the water with its shark, was jettisoned along with the film’s original director. (It’s the first version that was novelised, though: now there’s a weird reading experience.) While I would be loath to think that Carl Gottlieb, brought in to do the re-write, was consciously influenced by Tentacoli, as the first water-borne Jaws rip-off, it may have been in the back of his mind more than anyone realised at the time.

Tentacoli also initiates a particularly annoying trope that would show up again in Jaws 3-D in particular, but also in Jaws: The Revenge: namely, that the more people there are in the water, the shorter the casualty list will be. I mean, it’s all well and good to say that the octopus was “only” attacking those using the radio, but to have it bypass a veritable smorgasbord of victims in order to get to the unfortunate Jamie Docherty is going a bit too far. After all, the baby wasn’t the one using the radio, was it?

(And no, I don’t particularly want to see a bunch of kids offed: it’s the principle of the thing!)

"Attention, attention: the buffet is now open for your dining convenience...."

Anyway, with the end of the regatta comes the departure from the story of Tentacoli’s three Big Name Guest Stars. It is another of the film’s weaknesses that its “stars” are only tangentially involved in the action, while none of them take part in the story’s climax. (You’d think Ned Turner would have gone along as observer, or something.) The bad news is that from this point onwards, we are more or less confined to the company of Bo Hopkins’ Will Gleason; the good news is, he brings his good-looking friends with him.

Having borrowed the Oceanographic Institute’s yacht and floating tank, as well as its orcas, Gleason and Mike head for the area where Judy and her friends were killed, which (for no reason ever made clear) Gleason has decided is the octopus’s lair. Strangely, Mike emerges here as the film’s voice of reason (if not right), first arguing that the octopus will be smart enough not to come back, and then, in response to Gleason’s dark insistence that it will come back, because – sigh – “It’s tasted blood”, that it is, after all, just an animal: “An animal, disturbed by man’s stupidity!”

Amen, brother!

But of course, Gleason is vindicated. In refutation of Mike’s “just an animal” argument, he insists that the orcas, named Summer and Winter, understand every word he says, and vice-versa. He then goes on to – oh, groan – explain that they are called Summer and Winter because, “I met Vicky in the summer, and married her in the winter.” And while I’m sure this is meant to be all very romantic, speaking as the female of the species, I would hope that a husband could be slightly more specific than that. However, subsequent events suggest that this particular husband wasn’t entirely focussed upon his missus. The following day, as they are still hanging around and waiting for octopus-sign (rather than – just a suggestion, mind – turning on a radio), Gleason feeds the orcas, at the same time delivering a jaw-dropping pre-battle pep-talk. Assuming, indeed, that they can understand him (hey, how come when Richard Jaeckel behaved like this, everyone called him crazy!?), Gleason showers the orcas with tender praise, in the course of which, among other things, he assures them that, “You have more love in your hearts, more affection, than any human being I ever met.”

Oh, ouch! Take that, recently deceased Mrs Gleason!!

"Yeah, okay: I guess 'sleeps with the fishes' can have more than one meaning...."

However, the point of this speech – I guess – is that Gleason asks for the orcas’ help against the octopus, at the time insisting that, when he lets them out of the tank, if they choose instead to head for open waters, he will understand.

Likewise, I’m sure.

After still more hanging around, things liven up when the boat suddenly gives a violent lurch. Gleason and Mike struggle up onto deck, and discover that the floating tank has been completely wrecked. (One of the floats looks like its covered in blood, but we are given no hint that any of the participants in this are injured.) Gleason reacts with distress – again, showing far more emotion than he did over Vicky’s death – but Mike swiftly points out two fins nearby, which indeed seem to be heading out to sea. In the one truly effective moment in this sequence, Gleason instinctively raises the orcas’ training-whistle to his lips – and lowers it again.

The orcas having departed, it’s up to Gleason and Mike, who suit up, arm themselves, and jump in – to remind us forcibly that scuba-diving does not an exciting movie climax make. Long story short, they locate the octopus’s hidey-hole, and after one defensive ink cloud, the creature manages to initiate a rock slide – or coral slide – that pins Gleason to the seabed and severs his airline. All seems lost when – surprise! – Summer and Winter arrive, and go on the attack; and----

Well, I guess that’s why God invented the fast-forward button.

And yes, I know I said I wouldn’t go on about this, but for – for – excuse me, but for FUCK’S SAKE!! This scene involves hand-puppets; obvious, blatant hand-puppets; so why, exactly, could it not involve a rubber octopus also!? What is WRONG with these people!? Bastards. Bastard-coated bastards.

Like many of us, Mike fantasised about killing the director....

Anyway, while – that – is going on, Mike shares his airline with Gleason, and manages to dig him out from under the rock-fall. The two head for the surface....

Cut to three days later, with still no sign of the orcas. Gleason is becoming reconciled, more or less, to their loss, and starts making plans for a safari in Africa (where, evidently, he expects to see tigers). Mike offers to go along, and Gleason contemplates inviting Ned Turner – “If he don’t ask his sister” – which, considering that Gleason has never even met Tillie, is incredibly rude; or maybe a sign that with Vicky’s death, Gleason lost not so much a wife as a beard.

But wouldn’t you know it, just at that moment, Summer and Winter reappear; and the film closes with one more glorious piece of sloppiness, as shots of Gleason on Mike on the yacht, on what has just been established as a blustery day, with choppy seas and soaking spray aplenty, are intercut with footage of the two orcas in perfectly calm water. Gleason gets all dewy-eyed, and he and Mike jump up and down, slapping each other on the back. The credits roll, and not a moment too soon: I was starting to get a serious Troy McClure vibe from that guy....

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Dum inter homines sumus, colamus humanitatem.

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Footnote:  Strictly speaking, octopuses don’t have “tentacles”; they have “arms”. In cephalopods, the term “tentacle” is generally applied only to the extended, sucker-tipped feeding arms. A squid, therefore, has eight arms and two tentacles. However, even if Ovidio Assonitis & Co. were aware of this fact, which I profoundly doubt, I wouldn’t blame them for ignoring it. In the hunt for a suitably ominous body-part, “arms” hardly gets the job done.

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So much for truth in AIP advertising.

Want a second opinion of Tentacoli? Visit Stomp Tokyo, Braineater and 1000 Misspent Hours – and Counting.

 

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----posted 01/11/2009