Thursday 13 May 2010

Tentacles (1977)

Director: Oliver Hellman
Stars: John Huston, Shelley Winters and Bo Hopkins
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Tentacles, a low budget rip off of Jaws, made two years later with a giant octopus replacing the shark, appears to be about as Hollywood as you can get from moment one. The MGM lion roars, then Samuel Z Arkoff of American International presents John Huston, Shelley Winters and Bo Hopkins with a special appearance by Henry Fonda, all major names in 1977. Sure, we haven't heard of the director, Oliver Hellman, but there are always new directors in Hollywood, right? Well, this isn't Hollywood in the slightest, this is an Italian monster movie. Oliver Hellman is a pseudonym for Ovidio Assonitis, which sounds like a reason to stock up on anti-inflammatory cream but is really a hidden hint that this isn't what it seems, a terrible hint to be sure but the next one's even worse. In an attempt to tell us the secret to the film before we've even seen it we're forced to watch the opening credits unfold over a full sixty second shot of a taxi radio.

You can picture just how rivetting that is, but the sheer genius of it is that it means nothing at all until you've seen the movie and once you've seen the movie you're not going to care. This sort of thing suggests that Assonitis is an artistic soul, merely one whose artistic aspirations are far ahead of his grasp of cinematic language, and that suggestion is backed up continually as the film unfolds. When this taxi stops, for instance, we follow a pair of feet as they get out of the car and walk towards the ocean, only to realise that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the price of fish in Denmark. They're just an example of something that Assonitis saw in a movie, felt was cool and threw into his own, without apparently realising that the technique is supposed to highlight how important a character is while keeping us in suspense as to who he might be. Then again he got this job because he'd successfully ripped off The Exorcist. That's not much to go on.

Another great example comes when we see the sign that explains that we're not in Amity, we're in Solana Beach, California, where they're going to have their annual junior yacht race on 21st August. In Jaws, this sign is a successful plot device, here it's a sign. Oh, and it's a sign that looks like the sign in Jaws. That's it. And if you hadn't realised that this is an inferior knock off by this point, Assonitis replaces the skinnydipping Susan Backlinie with some Italian woman doing her lipstick while trying to talk her baby into behaving. She's Susan Hopkins and she runs over the road to talk to a friend who pulls up. In the background we watch little Billy, wondering where his mother has run off to and promptly disappearing as a bus goes past. 'But where is he?' asks the friend, because dialogue isn't a plus point here either. We know where he is because we've been watching him by octopus cam, not just at sea level but climbing up the cliffs too. Clever octopus.

And so it goes, as we follow the standard setups for a monster movie in very strange ways. The first victim is a baby but we don't play up the shock factor and we don't exploit it at all. Next to go is Bill Sullivan but we're stuck watching his peg leg and his butt and the back of his head as if the cameraman is shy or something. Maybe he's supposed to look like Quint but wouldn't if we could actually see him. There are many bizarre angles that look less like clever artistry and more like pointing the camera at random angles based on the roll of a dice. Sullivan is on a boat but not for long. In the time it takes his friend with the unfortunate flesh coloured shorts to walk off and grab a sandwich, he splashes off into the sea and is entirely gone when his friend runs back. By the time it throws up his corpse in front of the fat kids arguing about who kisses better we're firmly on the side of the monster. It even has the good taste not to eat such obnoxious kids.

Enter journalist Ned Turner, in the form of famed cinematic maverick John Huston, so maverick that he got to star in films like this. 'Jesus H Christ!' he says, in his resonant whisper. 'Stripped to the bone!' Quite why it's stripped to the bone after we saw it surface with not just the man's skin but even his beard intact, I really can't say. 'Got any answers?' he asks the nearest cop, who naturally doesn't have any idea either. 'I don't even know where to start asking questions,' he replies but his deputy nails it from moment one. 'That tunnel they're building in the harbour,' he suggests. 'They're using equipment Buck Rogers couldn't dream up.' Now, the only thing worse than the assumption that anyone using equipment that a cop doesn't recognise must be guilty of something is the fact that he's right. 'My opinion, we're in for a nightmare,' says Huston, but whether he's talking about the giant octopus, the film itself or the next scene is open for debate.
The next scene has Huston wander around his house in a huge white robe that makes him look like an old extra from Life of Brian. He was 71 at the time and looked it but Assonitis obviously hired the first stars that bit at his offer of a free Italian vacation and didn't bother to change the script to accommodate the results. So 71 year old John Huston is supposed to be the brother of 57 year old Shelley Winters, who poses sexily for him, even though she was overweight by this point. 'This isn't candy, this is passion,' she rumbles. 'Aren't you ever going to slow down?' he asks her. 'Never,' she says. Yes, Shelley Winters is playing herself here. She's Tillie Turner, she seduces young Italians, she has Bloody Marys for breakfast and she has a young son called Billy. A really young son. Effectively Ned and Tillie are apparently fortysomethings, as we discover when they talk about a surreptitious conversation they had forty years ago behind the sofa.

Quite what a 31 year old was doing whispering to his 17 year old sister so mom and pop couldn't hear is something that doesn't bear thinking about. We're also not supposed to be wondering what Shelley Winters is wearing and why she thinks it's a good idea, we should be setting up our octopus story before we forget why we're here. 'There must be something monstrous out there, monstrous and infernal,' Turner tells Sheriff Robards, who's checking up on the autopsy reports. The flesh is gone, there's very little cartilage left and all the marrow is gone too. Naturally these characters don't have the benefit of knowing that they're in a film called Tentacles but they do precisely nothing to find out what the cause of such a bizarre set of deaths really is. They just hire an expert to look into it, Will Gleason, an oceanographer with a case of the bends and a wife who's scared of him dipping his toes into the water. He sends a couple of his divers down instead.

Sheriff Robards is played by Claude Akins, another well known seventies face slumming it for a quick buck, but you're probably wondering where Henry Fonda is. Well, he's Mr Whitehead, the president of the rather unfortunately named Trojan Tunnels Inc, which is the bunch that are doing all that Buck Rogers stuff underwater. He has to read about Ned Turner's insinuations in the morning paper and he isn't happy about it. It would seem that he's really not happy about anything, given that he looks to be in notable pain. He seriously looks as if he's been crying, but perhaps he just read the script, remembered what he'd been doing forty years earlier and wondered why he was a film called Tentacles. Then again The Swarm was still to come, along with City on Fire and Meteor, before he'd finally redeem himself somewhat with On Golden Pond. He has about as much screen time here as the radio in that taxi at the beginning of the film.

Mr Whitehead is a strange character for another reason. Trojan Tunnels Inc is so fundamentally set up to be the traditional corporate villain of the piece that nobody ever seems to consider that there could be another cause for these tragic deaths. It's like they're the only possible suspect, so much so that nothing and nobody else is even worth considering. And yet Henry Fonda comes out with only a little blame because it's really his evil henchman who does the dastardly deeds that prompt the pissed off octopus and doesn't even have the common courtesy to keep his boss informed. It's almost as if Fonda agreed to lend his name to the project as long as he wasn't a bad guy and he didn't have to spend more than a day in front of the camera. This also sets a trend. None of these major stars do much, they don't interact very often and only one of them has any interaction with the monster. It may be the greatest waste of a good cast since Duel in the Sun.

What I'd read about this film led me to expect something truly awful, a spaghetti monster movie horribly mangled, but it wasn't, at least not in any traditional way that I'm used to. Films I review for Cinematic Hell tend to have something stunningly wrong with them, or many somethings all the way down to the decision to even make the movie. Yet none of that really applies here. The major names are capable but they struggle with the material. The rest of the cast are Italian so this feels more like a bad dub of an American film than an Italian film with a lot of Americans in it. The score is pretty good as a piece of music but it's overblown and often utterly inappropriate. The technical side is fair, at least when compared to much of the competition. The octopus shots are mostly of a real octopus in what must have been a pretty sizable tank and the killer whale shots are of real killer whales too. No single component screams out as a showstopper.

Yet by the time it was over, I realised that this film deserves a place in Cinematic Hell for many reasons. For a start, it's a boring monster movie and such creatures should simply not exist. It tries to emulate the suspense that Jaws was drenched in but fails dismally. The most exciting scenes inexplicably become still photos. Many scenes aren't actively bad only because they're not actively anything, they're just there and we have to wait for them to finish to get on with the story. Here are a couple of divers swimming around looking at mysterious equipment. Here's a bunch of boats lining up for the regatta. Here's a corridor for no apparent reason. Here's Bo Hopkins's crotch. Here's a shaky overhead shot. It does get a little disconcerting when probably a third of this film is filler that unwittingly distracts us from the rest. Here's water splashing against the camera. Here's a boat being flipped. Oh crap, we should be watching this! Rewind!
Somehow I managed to pay attention long enough to realise how many plot holes there are, so many that this becomes a Swiss cheese of a movie. Will Gleason won't dive deeper than 120 feet and only for three minutes because he had an attack of the bends but that's quickly forgotten in a crisis. Even talking about that sparks an argument with his wife, which gets him so upset he forgets her name. She's Vicky but he calls her Nicky or Micky or something icky, at least. When the characters work out what's going on, we have to triple take because it's so pathetic. 'There's only one thing big enough or powerful enough,' says Gleason. 'Are you thinking about sharks?' he's asked. 'No. I'm thinking giant octopus.' That's it. Just like Trojan Tunnels is the only suspect, a giant octopus is the only explanation. If it was that simple why didn't they work it out from moment one when the corpses started turning up all bleached and without any bone marrow.

Best of all, if you're remembering the sign from the beginning of the movie, there's a regatta coming up, the big summer event that Solana Beach has been planning all year, where the older kids race their yachts in the open sea. It's huge, so huge that Sheriff Robards completely forgets it's even happening. So he closes off the entire coast because of the dangerous giant octopus, but fails to tell the organisers of the regatta. This is about as believable as Chief Brody forgetting the fourth of July is coming up, but Ned Turner is worse yet. He's ahead of the game throughout the story, working out what the monster is, what riled him up and even what triggers him to kill, but somehow manages to forget that his nephew Tommy is taking part in the regatta, despite being half the age of anyone else competing. Most amazing of all is that nobody, precisely nobody, actually watches the race. They all sit back on the shore and watch a clown instead!

I should mention that Tommy is racing with his friend Jamie, who his mother seems to like more than him, so much so that she hugs him constantly and keeps calling her own son Jamie as if wishes come true merely through repetition. She also enrols them in this dangerous open sea attempt to run the octopus gauntlet but otherwise treats them like five year olds. 'Tommy, tell me, why do you think Jamie has to wee wee so much?' she asks him at one point, in public, in a truly surreal conversation that is even more notable for what isn't on screen. The reaction on the face of the child actor playing Billy at this point suggests that Shelley Winters must surely have hurled a string of abuse at the director for putting her in such a situation. A highly talented actor, she finds herself stuck in a huge sombrero asking some kid about wee wee. And she only gets more embarrassing from then on. She's the mother you'd want to run away from. Into the sea.

It's hard to realise why she took this part because it starts embarrassing and just gets worse. She never flinched at roles that made her look bad, like in Poor Pretty Eddie, but at least that was a real role. This one is an insult, even leaving her on the butt end of fat jokes conjured up by a kid. Then again there are lots of fat jokes in this picture. Maybe it's an Italian thing, you know, along the lines of the old chestnut. What's the difference between an Italian grandmother and a whale? About thirty pounds and a black dress. In comparison Huston attempts to play things serious but he vanishes from the story entirely after he commits his unfathomable faux pas. 'My God, the regatta!' he cries and just gives up the ghost for good. Akins plays the biggest non entity of a sheriff I've ever seen. Immediately after the film finished I tried to remember what he did and couldn't come up with anything. Fonda is merely collecting a paycheck and that's about it.

Only Bo Hopkins really gets an opportunity to do anything and I don't mean the inevitable fake shark attack jokes he plays on Don the really fat guy. He has not one but three love interests in the story. One is his wife, Vicky or Nicky or whatever else rhymes right now, but she dies in a quick succession of octopus attacks on boats that conveniently turn up to be attacked, never to be referenced again. This merely gives him the opportunity to be with his real loves. The closest thing we get to a love scene in this film is when Bo Hopkins emotes to the two killer whales that are inside the big yellow Oceanographic Institute tanks that he's floated out into the ocean. This is so tender that it becomes palpably romantic. I watched nervously in case he was going to strip off and climb into the tanks like Spock in Star Trek IV but to meld something other than mind. And it was here that I realised just how this film is utterly worthy of inclusion in Cinematic Hell.

Tentacles isn't even really a single film. There are four credited writers, which makes me wonder if each of them wrote a completely separate script about a giant octopus, so Assonitis could hire four sets of actors and crew members to make four utterly unrelated giant octopus movies, then later patch them all together in the editing room. It's that disjointed. Even the monster changes because mostly it's a real octopus in a tank but in at least one scene it's like the sort of toy you buy your kids to float on in a swimming pool. The only film more jarring than this that I can think of is Ray Dennis Steckler's Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and that's because he literally got so bored with what he was making that he gave up entirely halfway through a serious drama and decided to shoot the second half as a spoof of the Adam West version of Batman. At least that's a film of two halves. This is a film of four quarters, mashed into each other like unholy calamari sushi.


jervaise brooke hamster said...

Er...sorry Hal but "Tentacles" is still infinitely better than anything the British film industry has ever produced.

old pajamas said...


Teriffic work, effort. I hold your site in high esteem. Best wishes, keep going.....pajamas

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks, OP.

And let's be very clear here, JBH, even though this is probably part 17 of a one time joke. Tentacles (along with every other entry I've posted to Cinematic Hell this year) is worse than the worst Carry On movie, and those did get pretty bad. Come to think of it, perhaps I should review Carry On Emmanuelle for Cinematic Hell.

Anonymous said...

Accurate review. But there was one pretty cool camera action where the camera pulls back, & back to show a large beach crowd, goes up slighly (must be on a crane) then slowly, slowly zooms in, until it frames a remorseful Bo Hopkins. Accompanied by inappropriate music, and done for no particular reason. For 1977 it was pretty innovative.