One could be forgiven if, at first glance, Tentacles appears to be a spurious addition to the lineup of Italian horror flicks in this year’s October Horrorshow. The first five names in the credits are not Italian names. In fact, they are prominent names in Hollywood. The first is Samuel Z. Arkoff, who was very much an American producer. Even the director, Oliver Hellman, doesn’t seem to be of Italian extraction. But, this is all misdirection.
Arkoff and his company, American International Pictures, were not the producers of this film — they were the distributors in the States. Oliver Hellman is a pseudonym for Olivio G. Assonitis. And as for all those prominent names at the start of the film? Well, everyone in Hollywood, no matter how big, eventually slums it for an easy paycheck.
Tentacles is one in a long line of Jaws ripoffs. This one is no more shameless than others, such as The Last Shark or Orca.
From 1977, the beast in Tentacles is, one could guess, an octopus. Or, maybe a squid. There’s about a fifty/fifty chance an audience member could make the right guess. If one wants to be pedantic, octopuses don’t have tentacles. They have arms. Squid have tentacles, but usually only two. The rest of their appendages are arms. Same goes for cuttlefish. Jellyfish have boatloads of tentacles, with the Lion’s mane jellyfish having the longest at over 100 feet. Meanwhile, the chambered nautilus has the most number of tentacles in the animal kingdom. It’s not just sea life, either. Star-nosed moles have tentacles, making them amongst the weirdest-looking mammals. It would be one unique monster flick if a giant star-nosed mole was terrorizing the populace. Anyway, the monster in this movie is an octopus…a creature with no tentacles.
Tentacles features an all-star cast. Shelley Winters plays Tillie Turner, a widow or divorcée living in a seaside house with her brother, Ned (legendary director John Huston), and her young son, Tommy. Neither Winters nor Huston is a good fit for the role, but as we have seen, it’s almost de rigueur for Italian films to have Americans or Brits in starring roles, presumably for international box office. Hollywood films have been doing something similar of late, including token Chinese actors and actresses in films to get some of that sweet Changzhou money, the main difference being Hollywood hasn’t handed the lead to a Chinese performer yet.
There is a token American in this one, though, in Henry Fonda. According to the internet, so it must be true, he was coming off surgery to implant a pacemaker, so couldn’t do anything on screen that was too strenuous. Consequently, his role as a construction magnate was filmed in a day. It’s good work if one can get it.
But, the main character of this movie is Will Gleason, played by Bo Hopkins. He’s a whale trainer at a SeaWorld-type place who moonlights as a professional diver. He’s called in to investigate after Fonda’s company, which is constructing an undersea tunnel, is blamed for some deaths in the area. Of course, the deaths are not the result of the tunnel construction, but of a many-armed octopus with a voracious appetite.
Everyone who has seen Jaws knows where this film is going. What’s surprising is how closely it hews to Jaws at times. There is a lengthy setup where the film delves into the lives of the people on shore, with the final act whittled down to a couple essential characters who hunt the beast for a final confrontation.
Tentacles doesn’t do the character development phase of the movie very well. In fact, it’s tedious. The film doesn’t become watchable until the bodies start piling up, and it’s because Assonitis and company seem to have given up on competent filmmaking. At least it’s hilarious filmmaking.
There is a sequence where a yacht and its occupants are attacked by the octopus that features some of the worst model work I’ve ever seen in a film, and I loved every second of it. In some scenes the creature is a rubber head with a pair of eyes, and in others it’s a tiny octopus in a fish tank shot in closeup. There is never a moment when Assonitis and company don’t strain a viewer’s suspension of disbelief, making this film something that a viewer has to want to enjoy. Well, I did.
Besides the laughable effects work, Tentacles has its fair share of film weirdness. Winters’ character walks a fine line. Is she satire? Is she just a dumb person? Who knows? What I do know is that she can rock a sombrero the size of a beach umbrella. Then, there is Bo Hopkins. Before the final confrontation he has a heart to heart with a pair of killer whales, pouring out his soul to them in a monologue where he confesses that they are the only things left on earth that he can trust. Was his character drunk? Was Hopkins drunk? We’ll never know.
The standout scene for weirdness, but only because the technique was out of place in a film that otherwise lacked technical skill, was a long shot of fishing boats returning to harbor. The camera pulls back and pans, showing extras in the foreground with the boats at the top of the screen, and tracks left. Just about all we see of the people gathered are the backs of their heads, until the camera begins moving forward again. We see Huston light a cigar, and then the camera moves in close on Hopkins, as he comes to the realization that a character very important to him is not coming home. All of this happens to a score by Stelvio Cipriani (cribbing his own work) that is both very fitting, and very bizarre.
Cirpirani’s music, in fact, is the biggest tell that this is an Italian flick. Its cues will be familiar to anyone who has seen some spaghetti westerns or giallo.
Tentacles was slapped together from other peoples’ ideas to make a quick buck. It has an uneven pace which hurts watchability, especially up front. Then it gets silly and stupid and all the sins of the first act are forgiven. It lands in the top half of the Watchability Index at #147, displacing Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson and Future Kick.