Thursday, March 22, 2018

It's Tentacular!

I spent most of 1977 waiting for things to die.  Disco. Wide collar Qiana shirts (but I repeat myself). Matching (or worse, contrasting) plaid sofa 'n' curtain sets. Jaws rip-offs. But as history shows, all those trends still had a few years of life left in them, and instead, Elvis died.

It wasn't a great year for me, is what I'm saying.

But if you weren't me, if you were, to take a random example, a washed-up, aging American actor or a tow-headed, talent-free moppet, then times were good. Because no matter what else may have cratered in your life, chances were good that somewhere there was an Italian in tinted aviator glasses and hip-hugger double-knit slacks willing to point a movie camera at you.

Tentacles (1977)
Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis (as Oliver Hellman)
Written by Jerome Max & Tito Carpi & Steven W. Carabatsos

The movie opens on a palisade overlooking the beach in La Jolla, one of the most scenic spots in Southern California. After giving us a brief glimpse of its natural splendor, the director cuts inside a grungy taxi cab, where the main credits roll over a long close-up of a radio speaker as the dispatcher squawks out street names and addresses. This seems like an odd way to start a monster movie, but maybe it’s clever foreshadowing, and we’ll later find out that one of these apartments is where the giant octopus lives.

A badly dubbed Italian actress gets a vacation to the Greater San Diego area, but pays for it when her baby is abducted from its stroller by a Point of View shot.  Then the director decides his movie has a foot fetish. A salty old sea captain wearing clamdiggers wanders around on deck while we enjoy his naked ankles. It’s implied that he’s grabbed by the monster and skeletonized, but we don’t have time to show that because there’s more feet coming, as John Huston’s shoes take a long walk to Claude Akin’s face. Claude’s the local Sheriff, John’s the local newspaperman, who offers his opinion that “We’re in for a nightmare!” (So while you and I may feel we have good grounds for a class action suit against this movie, the filmmakers were unfortunately smart enough to add a disclaimer.)

John stays up all night, searching through books for the answer to these mysterious disappearances. He doesn’t find it, because they’re cookbooks, but if they ever do catch the giant octopus, the authorities can look forward to a zesty Polpi in Umido that’ll make you want to kiss your fingers.

John’s sister is Shelly Winters, a loving, caring, slatternly drunk who regales him with tales of her latest one-night stand while chugging her first Bloody Mary of the day. There’s also a mop-headed tween boy in the house who’s too young to be either John’s son or Shelly’s; I assume he’s a member of the Partridge Family who fell off the bus and nobody’s noticed yet.

Cut to Henry Fonda’s house, where he’s reaming out the Mayor from Animal House about John’s newspaper article, which implies Henry’s underwater construction company might have kidnapped a baby and stolen all the meat off a man in capris pants. Henry appears both angry and confused by John’s insinuations, and though he doesn’t come right out and say it, you also get the feeling he’s deeply uneasy about the caliber of roles he’s being offered these days.

A doctor shows Claude x-rays of the sailor’s body, and says “even the marrow has been sucked dry”, except he pronounces it “morrow”. But the soundtrack is kind of muddy, so maybe he’s actually saying “even Vic Morrow has been sucked dry”, which I hope is true because it's a better way to go than being decapitated on the set of a crappy John Landis movie. We're told the missing baby was also reduced to bones, but we don't discover if the monster spat it out, or if its tiny skeleton was collected from a stool sample.

John decides to recruit the world’s foremost marine authority, Bo Hopkins, who we find at Sea World, telling the trainers to get tough with their killer whales.  Bo would like to search for the sea monster, but four months ago he had a tragic diving accident (he got water in his ear, or something) and now he’s only qualified to yell at people for mollycoddling Shamu. Instead, he sends two of his best and most expendable divers. A harpsichord riff predicts they’re going to die.

The divers find that Henry Fonda’s high tech underwater tunneling equipment (so advanced, we’re told, that “Buck Rogers couldn’t have dreamed of it!”) has been vandalized and stripped for parts. The police suspect a sub-aquatic street gang (possibly the Jets, but probably the Sharks), but before anybody can break into a Jerome Robbins water ballet, a giant octopus squirts ink into the camera lens and murders the divers off screen so we can’t prove it in court. Nevertheless, the harpsichord wins five bucks.

Meanwhile, Shelly has gone into town wearing a comically oversized sombrero like Speedy Gonzales. We discover the Partridge Family tween is Shelly’s son, Tommy, and despite the constant string of gruesome deaths at sea, she wants to enter him and his friend, Cousin Oliver, in a sailboat race. (Pardon me for getting sentimental, but it's amazing how much Shelly’s character reminds me of my mother. Although to be fair, Mom’s sombreros were more reasonably proportioned, and very few of her plots to kill me required an entrance fee.)

Bo decides to get revenge for his two deboned employees and checks into the La Jolla Holiday Inn with his superhot Italian trophy wife, who played Athena in the Lou Ferrigno Hercules.  Meanwhile, Shelly is shoveling ice cream into her face in a desperate attempt to appease the monstrous sombrero, which appears to be some kind of alien symbiote, like Spider-Man’s black costume.  Even better, Partridge Family Boy and Cousin Oliver are obsessing about the sailboat race, raising the tantalizing hope they’ll get skeletonized before they can break into a chorus of “It’s a Sunshine Day” or “Together (Havin’ a Ball)”. Instead, Shelly (or the alien sombrero controlling her) frets about how frequently Cousin Oliver has to urinate, while Partridge Family Boy affectionately calls his mother a fat whore.

Hey, want to see Bo and a sidekick take snapshots while they cruise around in a two-man submersible craft they bought at a Thunderball garage sale? No? Well, I don’t think that’s really your decision, it’s the filmmakers, and they haven’t steered us wrong yet, have they? I mean, they did give us a monster that makes all the meat fall off a baby, and where else can you find that? Okay, maybe a Chile’s franchise on All You Can Eat Babyback Rib Night, but it’s still pretty rare.

Anyway, hang with this sequence, I’m begging you, because it becomes hilarious when the divers find a dozen large fish doing headstands on the ocean floor. That’s not a metaphor, by the way, these are literal fish with their tails up, balancing on their noses, like we’ve wandered into an all-mackerel hot yoga class.

Meanwhile, some Italians are cruising around the Channel Islands in a yacht while pretending to be Americans, but their boat has broken down, and so have their accents. The big fat guy jumps in the water, and we cut to the giant octopus's eyes popping open as we hear that “Dramatic Prairie Dog” music. This is like ringing the dinner bell for sea monsters, and the fat fake American tries to save himself by pretending to be Mexican.

Fake American #1 shouts, “Shark’s gonna kill ya!” and if this were a better movie, perhaps it would. Alas, Fat Fake Mexican is killed by poorly matched footage of an octopus filched from a National Geographic TV special.

Back on the broken-down boat, Sherry Buchanan, who was born in Biloxi but worked exclusively in Italian films and is dubbed by the same woman playing all the other female parts, making her an American pretending to be an Italian pretending to be an American, sees the fat guy’s feet sticking straight up out of the water (apparently he’s joined the sub-aquatic yoga class) and screams. This attracts the octopus footage, which tears apart her boat.

Cut to Bo, who suddenly figures out that the unseen monster is a giant octopus. How? Does he use forensic evidence, or deductive reasoning? No, he employs the Think System, just like Robert Preston in The Music Man.

“Are you thinking about sharks?” The Sidekick asks, for no good reason.

“No,” Bo replies. “I’m thinking…Giant octopus.”

So there you go. If your movie features a mysterious killer creature, but you don’t want to go to all the trouble of figuring out the clues, just have one of your characters think of the solution! It works equally well for cryptids and cornet-playing.

Now let’s watch Bo’s wife Athena pose in the prow of a yacht as it heads out to sea. Nothing happens, but the shot goes on so long you keep expecting her to break into “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl.

Later that night, Athena and two new Italians find the wreck of the earlier Italians’ cabin cruiser, but before they can do anything about it, Athena’s boat turns into a toy and sinks.

Athena survives and clings to the first wreck, but almost immediately gets sexually harassed to death by some Hentai tentacle porn.

Time for the Death Beach Annual Child Endangerment Regatta!

Shelly sees the two brats off to their doom, then we cut to Bo and John and Claude sitting around a classroom somewhere. John tries to sell the premise of the movie by saying, “I’ve read that the suckers on a tentacle are like the claws of a tiger.” Bo one-ups him by taking a Harold Pinter-sized pause before answering, more in sorrow than in anger, “Compared to suckers on a tentacle, claws are nothing…Nothing.”

John learns that Shelly has entered the local sitcom kids into a boat race, and declares the “giant squid” must be destroyed. He asks Bo, “Can you do it?”

Bo winds up for another big pause, then says, “I only got one thought on my mind…Just one.”


Meanwhile, the monster massacres the boating children. This is symbolized by shots of young actors in life jackets staring open-mouthed at the camera while a prop octopus head gets towed behind a speedboat, making it seem like the creature wants to water ski, but can’t quite keep his tips up.

Some kids live and are picked up by the Coast Guard, including Partridge Family Boy, but apparently he was out there long enough that he had to eat Cousin Oliver to survive.

Bo tows a huge yellow tank into the ocean. It contains his two pet killer whales, which he’s going to use to hunt down the octopus like a couple of coon hounds. He delivers a long speech celebrating all the “love” and “affection” in their hearts, but the tank sinks and the orcas leave him, proving just how intelligent this species is. If we were half as smart, we'd all have stripped to our skivvies and be clinging to a fin right now.

Having accidentally freed the Willys, Bo and Sidekick are forced to dive into the ocean with spearguns, where they spend the next two minutes getting startled by marine life making weird sound effects, in what feels like a Candid Camera episode directed by Ivan Tors. (Sidekick is frightened by a grouper operating what sounds like a staple gun, while Bo pees himself when he’s pranked by a manta ray with a snare kit).

The octopus buries Bo under an avalanche of coral and proceeds to taunt him, but the Orcas arrive in the nick of time like the 7th Calvary, then everybody turns into a puppet and things get confusing. The killer whales play tug of war with the monster while the Red Army Choir starts singing the Soviet national anthem out of nowhere. It's an odd needle drop for the end of a monster movie, and I can only assume the octopus ate he composer.

Sidekick rescues the hapless, buried Bo and gets him to the surface, making me wish I’d learned his name, because apparently he’s the hero of the film. Meanwhile the orca puppets dismember the octopus puppet, severely reducing its collectible value. So while this film wasn't terribly original, I give it points for trying: in most monster movies, the monster dies, only to reappear a couple years later in a sequel. In this Tentacles, the monster died, then reappeared in the same film as an appetizer platter from Red Lobster.


Jimbo said...

There's late '70s sea monster movies ("Jaws") and then there's Italian Spaghetti Monster movies but Italian Spaghetti Monster movies with late-in-career walk-on stars plus puppets plus Ed Wood type discontinuities? Faaabulous! Had me laughing Scott.

maryclev said...

Hilariously done, Scott! There was so much crazy directorial decisions in this one. I mean what was with all the freeze frames? I kept expecting to hear the J. Geils Band start up a song. (btw-I would love if someone put all the weird freeze frame shots from the movie and make it into a J. Geils Band video!)

maryclev said...

You know what else I love? How all the "A" list Hollywood actors are just...gone after the "all you octopi can eat buffet regala" comes to it's depressing end. They're just gone. No threads getting tied up. Kaput.

Scott said...

Hey, that's right! After the boat race the high priced talent jets off the set, and it's left to Bo Hopkins, some unnamed Italian dude, and Shamu to wrap up the story. I was so bored by that point I didn't even notice that Henry, Huston, and Shelley were gone.

Debbi said...

Thank you for this hilarious write-up, Scott!

Now I want to read Better Living Through Bad Movies again! :)

Anonymous said...

ANNTI sez...

Thank you. So much. I wish that it had eaten the ACTUAL Partridge Family, but this encapsulation is more than satisfying. Though how Claude Akins ever got ANY kind of employment is a mental clusterfuck that I am subjected-to almost weekly, here @ The Old Wanna-Live-In-A-1956-Western Home. (Bad grammar, but descriptive.)

Same goes for Bo Hopkins, no matter HOW much radiation seeped into my brain from that giant CB tower in the back yard, whilst being relentlessly subjected to the soundtrack album from "Smoky & The Bear." (Yup, first record that I ever owned, or 'co-owned,' even if I never got actual possession... Don't ask.)


Hank said...

What was it about the Italian film industry and astonishingly bad Jaws rip-offs? But this one makes Orca look like The Maltese Falcon. It's not often you get to see three A-list actors humiliate themselves so thoroughly.

Hilarious take-down, Scott.