Tentacles/Tentacoli (1977) -**½
Most Jaws rip-offs are as short on ambition as they are on shame. Forget craft, forget style, forget creativity— they’re just here to take the money and run,, and they don’t care who knows it. Tentacles is a bit different, though. Producer/director Ovidio Assonitis is nobody’s idea of a great— or even more than minimally competent— filmmaker, and Tentacles is unquestionably a lousy movie, but the closer you look, the plainer it becomes that Assonitis was attempting to do a wee bit more than to make exactly the same movie as Spielberg had, only for a quarter of the cost. For one thing, Assonitis was actually prepared to spend a great deal of money by the usual standards of the Italian film industry. True, John Huston, Shelley Winters, and Henry Fonda were no longer commanding anything like the salaries they had ten year earlier (at least not after you adjust for inflation), but hiring all three of them at once was by no means inexpensive. Filming most of the movie on or under the water wasn’t cheap, either, nor was hiring two trained killer whales and their handlers. Even more significant than that confident (some might say overconfident) commitment of resources, however, is the remarkable amount of creative effort from Assonitis that a close examination of this movie reveals. Again, Assonitis was no damn good, and neither is Tentacles, but their failures cannot be blamed on simple lack of care. Every mistake is instead a carefully considered mistake; when Tentacles steps in dogshit (which is often), it’s because that’s exactly where Assonitis wanted it to plant its eight wriggly feet.
The action that plays out beneath the opening credits is a case in point. The camera is sited in a moving vehicle, peering out as it zips down the coast highway of what’s supposed to be Solona Bay, California, but which is probably really someplace in Greece at this point in the film. It will gradually be revealed that this is a point-of-view shot, representing the perspective of someone riding in the back seat of a taxi. Eventually, this unseen, unspeaking person gets tired of looking out the window, and starts staring at the car’s radio instead. He (or she— we have no basis for deciding yet) stares and stares and stares, until you finally start to wonder if maybe the cameraman has fallen asleep. Then, at long last, the cab comes to a halt and the man in the back (definitely a man now) pays the driver and lets himself out. Cut now to a shot outside the taxi, so close in and so low to the ground that all we can see of the passenger is the lower fourteen inches of his bright white slacks and his hideously garish shoes. Man— this guy must be terribly important to warrant this sort of buildup before we’ve had so much as a clue to his identity, right? Wrong. In fact, we’ll never learn for certain who the guy in the taxi is, and the character who he’s most likely to be (because they both walk with the same limp) gets killed off within the first ten minutes. You see what I mean? This is no ordinary bungling. It’s a fuck-up that Assonitis had to go miles out of his way to commit.
Assuming I’m correct in guessing that the man with the limp is Pegleg Bill the fisherman, then he’s the second to die in Solona Bay, pulled from his boat and deposited in mangled condition beside the pier where a couple of teenagers had been hanging out. The first is a baby, which gets stolen right out of its carriage when Mom momentarily leaves it unattended at the shoreline to say hello to a passing friend. This is one of the two best-executed shock scenes in the whole film, and frankly, any movie that has the nerve to begin the main action with infanticide scores a couple of points with me, even when it isn’t handled as skillfully as it is here. Anyway, the day’s two weird aquatic deaths draw the attention first of Sheriff Robards (Dan Curtis regular Claude Akins, from The Night Stalker and The Norliss Tapes), and secondly of journalist Ned Turner (John Huston, of The Visitor and Battle for the Planet of the Apes). The sheriff’s interest is obvious, but you would not be alone in finding it a little strange that the reporter immediately starts snooping for a connection between the mysterious deaths and the activities of the Trojan Tunneling Company, which has been doing some underwater drilling not far away. For some reason, Trojan and its director, Mr. Whitehead (Henry Fonda, from Meteor and The Swarm), have become Turner’s great obsession since they came to Solona Bay, and this is evidently only the latest in a long series of mishaps and misfortunes which the old journalist has attempted to pin on the company. We never will learn the origin of Turner’s beef with Whitehead and Trojan (for that matter, we’ll never learn what they’re digging that undersea hole for, either), but he’s convinced the firm is up to no good, and he’s determined to expose them and put a stop to it.
In order to do so, Turner hopes to enlist the aid of oceanographer and deep-sea diving expert Will Gleason (Bo Hopkins, of Mutant and Uncle Sam). Turner pays a visit to the Oceanographic Research Institute of California, where the younger man works, and catches him in the middle of playing with his two trained killer whales. What the reporter wants is for Gleason to come to Solona Bay and conduct an independent probe of the drilling operation, see if he can find anything that might explain the recent deaths. Whitehead is doing his own investigation, but Turner naturally has no confidence in that. Gleason is noncommittal, for an injury he suffered some years ago rendered his lungs susceptible to collapse under pressure, strictly limiting his abilities as a diver. His wife, Vicky (Delia Boccardo, from Aphrodite and Luigi Cozzi’s Hercules), dislikes seeing him perform even such restricted diving as he now does. Trojan is digging at considerable depth, and Gleason isn’t at all sure he’s physically capable of fulfilling Turner’s request.
The Trojan investigation changes the situation significantly, in ways that enable Gleason’s do-gooder instincts to overcome his caution. Whitehead’s divers find a great deal of smashed electronic equipment on the seafloor, some of which they are unable to recognize. They also find an octopus the size of a modest fishing trawler, which promptly kills one of the divers and chases the other back to their bathyscaphe. Before the second man can do more than radio the surface ship above to reel him back up (he’s too panicked to give the hoist crew an intelligible reason why), the octopus wraps its tentacles around the diving bell and crushes it like an empty soda can. (This is where Tentacles gives us its second effective shock scene. While making his frantic distress call, the diver turns around to look out the bathyscaphe’s window, and is greeted with the cephalopod’s mammoth eye gazing impassively in at him.) Now there’s no question but that there’s something deadly and unusual haunting the waters of Solona Bay, and that it makes its home in the vicinity of the Trojan dig. Also, Turner now suspects that radio waves have something to do with the current nastiness, as all four victims appear to have been either listening to or communicating via radios at the time of the attacks. (Hmm… Do you suppose that makes the business with the radio in the taxi earlier an oafish attempt at foreshadowing?)
That being the case, you have to wonder why Turner doesn’t say anything to his daughter, Tillie (Shelley Winters, from Night of the Hunter, now reduced to providing marquee value for movies like this one and Cleopatra Jones). Tillie’s son, Tommy, wants to enter Solona Bay’s upcoming Junior Regatta with his friend, Jamie, and Tillie thinks that’s a great idea. In fact, she thinks it’s such a great idea that she buys a pair of handset radios to enable her to keep in touch with the kids during the big race. This is the sort of situation in which you might want to know that there’s a man-eating, radio-guided sea monster on the loose, don’t you think?
Meanwhile, Gleason, his wife, and his assistant arrive in Solona Bay, where Vicky conveniently has family. There’s her sister, Judy (Sherry Buchanan, of Dr. Butcher, M.D. and Escape from Galaxy 3), a young man named Chuck (Franco Diogene, from The Teasers and Strip Nude for Your Killer) who is probably supposed to be Judy’s boyfriend, and a huge fat guy whose name I didn’t catch, whom the two youths delight in tormenting. Gleason and his assistant find some strange things on their first dive. For one thing, there’s enough purely terrestrial man-made stuff down on the seafloor to suggest that the Solona Bay Monster has killed a lot more people than anyone realized. For another, there’s a spot where about 500 dead tuna are floating nose down above the sandy bottom. Frankly, I have no idea what to make of this. Is it supposed to be a fish-kill caused by the dig? Is the octopus responsible? And if it’s the latter, then why the hell didn’t it eat all those fish? What it really looks like is that our monster polyp has been devoting the hours between its anthropophagous outbursts to a singularly weird and morbid arts-and-crafts project. In any case, while Gleason consults with Turner and Sheriff Robards about his strange discovery, Judy, Chuck, and Fatty head out onto the bay for an afternoon of swimming, fishing, sunbathing, and getting eaten by an octopus. When Vicky gets worried about Judy’s increasingly excessive lateness, she hires a fishing boat to take her out to look for the girl, and she, astonishingly, gets eaten too. The creature finishes with her just about the time that Turner and Gleason reach (correctly, but on no recognizable evidentiary basis) the conclusion that Whitehead’s seismographs have pissed off a titanic octopus, which is now roaming Solona Bay, killing anyone with the temerity to use a radio. Let’s just say Gleason will not be pleased with what he finds when he gets home.
That brings us to the day of the Junior Regatta, the opening event of the biggest festival of the summer in Solona Bay. Would you believe that nobody yet has put two and two together to recognize that Junior Regattas and monster octopodes don’t mix? Not Gleason, not Turner, not Robards— nobody? Well, regardless of what you or I believe, Tommy and Jamie and untold hundreds of other pre-teens are about to clamber onto their little fiberglass sailboats, fire up their walkie talkies, and effectively holler, “Hey, Mr. Octopus! Dinner is served!” The Proper Authorities get wise at about quarter-to-too-fucking-late, and their response is almost as irresponsible as not doing anything at all— ask John Landis about little kids and low-flying helicopters sometime. Even then, it doesn’t much matter. The octopus has homed in on the signals from Tommy and Jamie’s radio, and it makes a beeline for their boat, capsizing the whole rest of the regatta along the way. It’s obviously time now to take the fight to the octopus, and Gleason has something even better than Robert Shaw with which to do it. You remember those orcas in the tank at the Oceanographic Research Institute? That’s right. They (and their hand-puppet stunt doubles) just turned into a plot point.
So we’ve got two good shocks, some quite appealing cinematography, and a commendable effort to be a bit different from the usual Italian (or American, either, for that matter) Jaws knock-off. We’ve also got three capable actors in major roles, and a monster mollusk realized by an astute combination of a real octopus filmed in forced perspective and a surprisingly convincing set of models. There’s even a sharp departure from what the Italians usually treated as an iron-bound formula rule, in that our Evil Capitalist is in fact no more Evil than any other businessman, and orders a halt to the activities that have the octopus so riled up once he is finally convinced that Turner is on to something— Whitehead doesn’t even get killed in the end! So what in the hell went wrong? The short answer is, almost everything. To start with the most obvious thing, this is a film in which the monster is a radio-guided octopus. Please. And the malfeasance that sends it on its rampage is eventually revealed to have something to do with the frequencies to which Corey had tuned Trojan’s undersea seismographs, which makes no sense on any level— (A) seismographs detect sound waves, not radio waves; (B) seismographs are receivers, not transmitters; and (C) octopodes don’t seek confrontation with things they don’t like, they run away from them. Leaving aside the monster issues, we’re faced with Ovidio Assonitis and his extremely quirky directorial style. In the highly unlikely event that Assonitis and I should ever meet face to face, the first thing I’m going to ask him is, “My God, man— what the hell is it with you and people’s feet?!” It’s not just the guy in the taxi cab who may or may not be Pegleg Bill, either. Practically everybody in this movie gets an extended star turn for their feet at some point, and a few of them get several. I have no idea what it’s about. Nor can I begin to explain the unexpected turn for the arty that Tentacles takes during the octopus attack on the Junior Regatta, which is full of almost randomly placed freeze-frames. Finally, there’s the music. The shark-attack cue from Jaws is one of the most iconic pieces of movie scoring to come along since there was such a thing; its counterpart in Tentacles, however, is this weird little harpsichord squiggle that would be better suited to a giallo. It is sort of ominous, but in a way that suggests a lurking sex psycho rather than a man-eating mollusk. The Junior Regatta and the climactic orca-vs.-octopus battle get special themes, too, and they’re absolutely insane. I mean, like, “Spaghetti Western made by aliens” insane. But the most serious defect of Tentacles is that it’s just so goddamned draggy, while most of its acting talent is concentrated in subplots that have increasingly little to do with the main action. Seriously, Winters, Huston, and Fonda aren’t even in the movie anymore after the doomed sailboat race (supposedly, Assonitis was unable to persuade them to fly out to Greece, where the main shoot was headquartered), and the most charismatic of the remaining characters are all dead by then. That leaves us with Bo Hopkins and his whales (to whom he gets to deliver a St. Crispin’s Day speech at one point), and that’s nowhere near good enough. The sad thing is that Tentacles is probably still the second-best movie about a giant octopus ever made, even with all those demerits on its record.