Monster Movie Monday: Tentacles (1977)
Matthew Turner | On 06, Jul 2020
Director: Ovidio G. Assonitis
Cast: John Huston, Shelley Winters, Henry Fonda, Bo Hopkins, Delia Boccardo, Cesare Danova, Alan Boyd, Sherry Buchanan
Watch Tentacles online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
In the mood for a creature feature? Amazon Prime has a veritable menagerie of monster movies, so we’re working our way through them, one beastie at a time. Welcome to Monster Movie Mondays.
One of several Jaws rip-offs to emerge in the wake of Spielberg’s shark attack classic, Tentacles (or Tentacoli, if you prefer its Italian title) is an Italian-American production that takes the basic plot of Jaws and swaps out the shark for a giant octopus. It’s directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis, a prolific B-movie specialist, who effectively launched the career of director James Cameron when they worked together on 1982’s Piranha II: The Spawning.
Set in the real-life city of Solana Beach, California, the film begins with a spate of octopus attacks, where victims are found with all their flesh missing. Crusading newspaper reporter Ned Turner (John Huston) and marine expert Will Gleason (Bo Hopkins) conclude that the attacks are the work of a giant octopus, mutated by “above regulated level” radio signals in the construction of an underwater tunnel by a company owned by industrialist Mr Whitehead (Henry Fonda). Meanwhile, Ned’s promiscuous sister Tillie (Shelley Winters) helps her young son Tommy and his friend prepare for a big dinghy sailing race in the local regatta. What could possibly go wrong?
For a low budget production (reputedly around $750,000), the octopus effects are actually pretty good. For the most part, the filmmakers are just using close-ups of a real octopus, but there are a couple of moments (a shot of the octopus attacking a boat from underneath, a night attack scene) where the special effects are surprisingly well done, largely because they’re done so sparingly – a bit of octopus here, a bit of octopus there. There are also moments where it’s just a rubber tentacle flailing about, but generally speaking, the effects are decent.
Most monster movies stand or fall on their attack sequences and on that level, Tentacles just about stays afloat. The afore-mentioned boat attack is the high point – it’s a nicely tense, effectively staged scene that combines a bit of fat-man-going-for-a-swim comedy (forgive the unenlightened times) and a splendidly weird and creepy moment (a woman screaming as her husband’s legs stick up from under the water and get pulled along) before the actual attack, with the boat being ripped apart.
The night attack scene, with a clearly massive octopus attacking a fishing boat is also well done, and has the added bonus of giving Bo Hopkins’ character octopus-killing motivation because – spoiler alert – it eats his pretty wife (Della Boccardo). Well, it picks her up in its giant tentacles, anyway. The rest is left to the viewer’s imagination.
Sadly, the big set piece – the regatta attack – is a bit disappointing by comparison, but it is notable for its spectacular synth-based score (used throughout the film) from composer Stelvio Cipriani. With little Tommy out on the water and Shelley Winters frantically trying to communicate by walkie-talkie – “What’s happening? Answer your mother!” – you’re expecting a full-on octopus attack, but instead all you get is repeated shots of a big brown octopus head speeding through the water, then multiple shots of capsized dinghies and shocked reaction shots without so much as a tentacle in sight. To be fair, the filmmakers do at least have the decency to get the octopus head and Tommy’s boat in the same shot and they repeat the octopus-attacks-from-underneath effects shot from earlier but, after that, it’s a quick cut to a mast going down and that’s it.
There’s disappointment when it comes to the cast too. Despite the attention-grabbing presence of Henry Fonda, Shelley Winters and John Huston, none of them even gets close to a giant octopus, let alone shares a scene with one. Lord knows what attracted them to the parts, because the dialogue is mostly terrible and their scenes are really dull – it’s debatable that Fonda even knew he was in a giant octopus movie, given the content of his scenes, all of which he apparently shot in a single day. Worse, all three of the big name characters completely disappear from the film after the regatta scene, with half an hour still to go, so it’s fair to say that character development is not this film’s priority.
Despite the boring dialogue scenes and a number of pacing issues, there are still a few non-octopus-attack highlights, such as this dialogue exchange between Hopkins and Huston: “I’ve read that the suckers on a tentacle are like the claws of a tiger…” / “Compared to suckers on a tentacle, claws are nothing, Mr Turner. Nothing.” Similarly, the underwater photography is surprisingly good, in that you can actually tell what’s going on.
The film is also noteworthy for its bizarre ending that manages to be hilariously terrible and brilliant at the same time. Basically, Hopkins’ character has a moving scene with his two killer whales (Summer and Winter), where he explains to them that he’s lost his wife and he needs their help to kill this octopus, but if he lets them go and they just swim off, then he’ll understand. Do Summer and Winter return and help kill the giant octopus, just in the nick of time? They do, and it’s a special moment for everyone involved.
Tentacles is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.