Trivia Although the title of the film is Tentacles, and it is about a murderous giant octopus, octopuses do not have tentacles, they have arms. Scientifically, the definition of "tentacle" is commonly accepted as an elongated structure with suckers at the very tip. So there.
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4th Jul 08
Henry Fonda warms up for The Swarm, Bo Hopkins talks to the mammals and Shelley Winters needs to be sedated.
In the second half of the seventies, worldwide cinemas were swamped with optimistic Jaws rip-offs that veered from the ridiculous (all hail Orca Killer Whale!) to the ludicrous (Killer Fish take a bow!). It’s tough to be too hard on Tentacles, an American International release, partly because it presents the utterly bizarre casting concept of Shelley Winters and John Huston as siblings. Rumour has it that the formidable Winters, one of the most memorable aspects of perennial Christmas TV blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure, was originally cast as the octopus but deemed to be too horrific for the “PG” rating. Also in need of work circa 1976 was Bo Hopkins, here playing a marine version of Dr. Doolittle, who gives a moving pep talk to his beloved killer whales (“You have more love in your heart than any human being…”) and asks them - successfully - to destroy the eponymous menace.
Tentacles was among the initial flurry of exploitation movies that rode on the coattails of the Spielberg film with a Corman-like speediness. Oddly it was three years until the Corman stable cranked out their own riff, though it turned out to be one of the best, Joe Dante’s spry and self-mocking Piranha. This film’s parallels to Jaws are plentiful and obvious, starting with the title. Just as Jaws isn’t called “Shark”, this emphasises the deadliest feature of its underwater menace instead of just calling itself “Octopus” or “When Shelley Winters Attacks”.
Like Jaws, it employs a voyeuristic subjective camera to represent the octopus and ominously observe the legs of swimmers and, like Jaws it teases the audience with false scares until the real “monster” shows up. Here, one character scares a fat guy (“Shark’s gonna get ya!”) twice in quick succession before he gets it, and during the climax, there are endless moments of characters getting spooked by various sea creatures before the octopus appears.
The most jolting moments in the Spielberg classic are reworked here by director “Oliver Hellman” (stop hiding, Ovidio Assonitis, we know it’s you!). In place of the startling death of Alex Kintner, this kills off an unnaturally deep-voiced kid and a baby (albeit off-screen), while a partially decomposed corpse popping out of the water unexpectedly attempts to duplicate the head in the boat gag in Jaws. In a neat subversive moment during the climax, Tentacles wryly acknowledges the debt it owes to Jaws with the sudden appearance of a tall fin in the water signifying not the threat of that film’s shark but the arrival of this film’s heroes - the killer whales.
A small seaside community is being terrorised by a normal-sized octopus that has had its nerves frazzled and temper flared by all the underwater drilling undertaken by Henry Fonda’s construction company (“It’s an animal, disturbed by man’s stupidity!”). Respected journalist John Huston gets wind of what’s going on but, despite being set up as the main protagonist, is forgotten about for most of the movie. His sister (Winters) is a Bloody Mary-guzzling ageing nympho who, pointing towards her body, enthuses “This isn’t candy, it’s passion!”. (Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid). Winters has a squeaky brat who says things like “Mommy, you’re plump - there’s more to love!”. The only moment in Tentacles that might induce the kind of nightmares Jaws inspired involves Huston and Winters in their nightgowns. (Be Very, Very Afraid).
Winters and Fonda (who literally phones in most of his performance but would have to wait another two years for a real career low in the shape of The Swarm) flit in and out of the movie, while old men with peg legs and girls in bikinis fall victim to an effective but barely glimpsed octopus. Hopkins is a diver with the bens who fills in some vital octopus facts for the audience at home…”Compared to suckers on a tentacle, claws are nothing!” he announces (substitute “claws” for “jaws” and you’ve nearly got yourself a competitive tag line!). In place of the Fourth of July backdrop of Jaws, there’s a big junior yacht race used to incorporate panicking, imperilled extras.
Tentacles isn’t very exciting but, as a minor relic from a bygone era, it has an undeniable charm and curiosity value. It wins bonus points for the spectacle created by Shelley Winters’ absurdly huge hats and for the peculiar climax in which the whales, accompanied by a heroic choral theme, defeat the octopus in an extended set piece predating the zombie-shark interface in Zombie Flesh Eaters in terms of surrealistic underwater genre confrontations.
The odd mixture of accents and the presence of awkwardly dubbed secondary characters reveal the film’s international origins, as does the very 70’s score, which makes some attempt to give the octopus a low key primal theme but scores the attack sequences like a TV cop show for some odd reason. The octopus itself is acceptable and preferable to today’s shiny slick CG equivalents, but since it is seldom seen attacking anyone, it fails to be a true menace.
Winters, Huston and Assonitis reunited, bizarrely enough, for the later Italian-American horror flick The Visitor, a movie boasting the once-in-a-lifetime credit “Franco Nero as Jesus Christ”. Unlike Tentacles, The Visitor isn’t available on DVD, though you can replicate the effect of actually watching it by snorting an ounce of ginger, downing a pint of Absinthe and hiring a bald, non-English-speaking adolescent to whisper random words into your ear at regular intervals.
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