The Devil’s Advocate #6: ‘Tentacles’ (1977)

There’s an old song by Crosby, Stills & Nash which sagely urges that “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” With so many horror films in recent years failing to deliver the sort of thrills that made us genre fans in the first place (Consider the bulk of this year’s theatrical output, if you need proof!), the Schlockfinder General has long labored to heed the advice of those old hippies and try to love even the least lovable of contemporary scare screeners. Of course, some movies are just so awful that they’re destined to be shunned and ignored until they fade from existence. Another old song declares that “you’re nobody until somebody loves you,” and some celluloid stinkers wholly deserve to remain nobodies forever. But often, even the most seemingly indefensible clunker has merits which can be appreciated – and even savored – by an open-minded, fun-loving fright fan. For this reason, I give you THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE… today’s defendant in this court of public opinion? TENTACLES!

THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE #6: TENTACLES (1977)

I believe that sometime between creating the heavens and the Earth and kicking Adam and Eve out of paradise, God decided to make a monster. In His infinite wisdom, He decided that this monster should live at the bottom of the ocean, in the murky shadows of the planet’s darkest recesses. He opted not to give the creature a skeleton, so that no matter how large it grew, it could squeeze its hideous form through openings a fraction of its own size. He chose to make it extremely intelligent – so intelligent, in fact, that it can solve problems, open doors, and even operate simple devices. He imbued it with the ability to change both the color and texture of its skin, so that it could completely blend into its surroundings. In the unlikely event that it ever encountered a predator more dangerous than itself, God gave the monster the power to spew a billowing cloud of black, viscous ink. Finally, just to ensure that it was deadlier and more horrifying than every other beast in Creation, the Almighty gave this aquatic abomination eight long, powerful arms and a razor-sharp beak.

Regardless of your views on intelligent design, it’s hard to argue that the octopus is anything other than a genuine sea monster. Let me reiterate – it’s got a friggin’ beak! Small wonder it’s still referred to as a “devilfish” in countries around the world. Of course, no real octopus is quite as versatile or dangerous as the one featured in the 1977 Italian JAWS rip-off TENTACLES. But, after watching the film again, I wouldn’t volunteer to put one to the test.

TENTACLES kicks off with an angry cephalopod cruising around the shores of Ocean Beach, snatching babies from strollers and peg-legged sailors from rickety fishing boats, to the haunting strains of spaghetti western music. When the slimy bugger rescues a nerd from the amorous attentions of an overweight admirer with a well-placed, half-eaten corpse, Sheriff Claude Akins and reporter John Huston show up to trade grim scowls. Huston then shares some sappy banter with his wild-oats-sowing sister Shelley Winters, while greedy corporate exec Henry Fonda glowers and orders his underwater tunneling project to continue no matter the cost. It’s this enterprising endeavor – specifically, the high frequency radio transmissions involved – which has the octopus in such a crappy mood, so it goes right on eating fat Italian guys and shapely bikini babes. Only after it munches on some mop-haired kids during the town’s annual sailboat race do the powers that be realize they have no choice but to send marine biologist/fishermen Bo Hopkins and his pet killer whales out to turn the beast into calamari.

I should point out here that JAWS is, in my opinion, the greatest movie ever made. By all rights, I should instinctively resent any movie that rips it off so egregiously – especially one as ridiculous as TENTACLES. But it’s not easy to hate a subgenre that includes cult classics like PIRANHA, ALLIGATOR, GRIZZLY, and the delightfully idiotic ORCA. It’s even more difficult when one has always had a deep-seated, irrational (because one lives in the Midwest) fear of any aquatic life form larger than a crappie.

Laugh if you must, but I find the countless shots of an obviously tiny octopus in extreme close-up to make it look enormous absolutely terrifying. Indeed, even the rubbery octo-head that defies physics and mollusk physiology by cruising along the surface like a bloated, bug-eyed shark fin scares the crap out of me. Matt Hooper might not be fooled by the stunning special effects in TENTACLES, but a landlubber who switched from baths to showers at a very early age thanks to scenes like the climax of POPEYE and the pre-credits sequence of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is bound to avoid beaches for a good long time after a single viewing of this Italian epic.

It’s also fair to point out that while TENTACLES borrows both the basic plot and key scenes from JAWS, it includes several elements that would later be stolen by Universal for its Great White sequels. The closing battle between the killer whales and the octopus is clearly the inspiration for the dolphins-versus-shark finale of JAWS 3-D – right down to the travel commercial-style shots of finned mammals flipping and frolicking on the surface following a lopsided victory. The sailboat race which wrinkles Shelley Winters’ chubby cheeks with worry is repeated in both JAWS 2 and JAWS: THE REVENGE (sans Ms. Winters, of course). Until the aforementioned REVENGE, Bruce the Shark killed in relative silence, accompanied only by the strains of John Williams’ iconic score. It wasn’t until he followed Lance Guest to the Bahamas that the toothy terror started roaring like Dino De Laurentiis’ KING KONG every time he reared up from the surf. But the octopus in TENTACLES comes out howling with fury from the very start, despite having even less in the way of vocal chords than any thirty-foot-long fish. And while this devilfish never eats a seaplane or a giant, inflatable banana during his single screen outing, Bruce doesn’t manage to snatch a single infant from a landlocked baby buggy without being seen in no less than four feature-length feeding frenzies.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit the name actors featured here (with the exception of the rather bland Hopkins) for delivering admirably sincere performances, and thus lending the production a degree of polish uncommon in both JAWS imitations and dubbed 70s imports. No one will confuse Akins for Roy Scheider or Huston for Robert Shaw, but at least both seem to be taking the material seriously.

TENTACLES is available as an MGM Midnight Movie Double Feature with Bert I. Gordon’s EMPIRE OF THE ANTS – a perfect double bill if ever there was one. Better still, you can watch it online over at Hulu. Even if spaghetti sea monster sagas aren’t your cup of tea, a kitschy casserole of pre-Syfy giant monster schlock like this for the low, low price of absolutely free is a bargain for any open-minded horror fan. Whether it scares you to death or makes you die laughing, you can be sure that it’s at least eight times as much fun as your average nautical nightmare.

NEXT ON THE DOCKET: Go ask Alice. I think she’ll tell you why the Schlockfinder General loves the RESIDENT EVIL films!

READ THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE – HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION (2002)
READ THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE – JASON X (2002)
READ THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE – FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING (1985)
READ THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE – THE SILENT SCREAM
READ THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE – THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE #5: BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 (2000)