As I remember, it was a typical Saturday morning, and I was flipping through the channels on my parents' black-and-white television. I was probably looking for an Abbott and Costello movie; there was almost always an Abbott and Costello movie on Saturday or Sunday. It was ten minutes to the hour, and I had stopped for a moment on WOR — Channel 9 out of New York; commercials had just ended, and the familiar voice of the announcer said, "And now, the conclusion of... Octaman!" Aha, I thought: a monster movie. That's even better than Abbott and Costello. It didn't matter that I was only catching the end of the movie, since that was where the Best Parts were from a kid's point of view: usually, monster movies were coy about showing their creature until the very end, so if you were going to see any of the movie at all, it should be the finale. You also got to see the second Best Part of the movie: How They Destroy the Monster.
So the last few minutes of the movie started: I saw a group of people walk up to the door of a big RV. They opened it — and all at once, a huge rubber octopus-man came bounding out with his tentacles flailing. And I was scarred for life.
That moment doesn't seem very frightening, does it? To an adult, I suppose, it isn't. But I was an impressionable child, and the impression this scene gave me was that giant octopus-men could jump out of any door, anywhere, without warning. Remember, I had only seen a few moments of the movie; I had no context for this scene. It seemed to me that if a scary monster could jump out of an RV, for goodness's sake, then monsters could be anywhere. Also, remember that I was at an age when a kid's imagination makes everything, even the least convincing rubber suit, seem utterly, compellingly real. It's adults who snicker over the ping-pong ball eyes and the zipper-backs of the monster suits; little kids see the idea the suit was meant to express, and are terrified.
So I spent the next several years convinced that Octaman lurked behind every closed door. The fear grew worse the closer I got to actual water: even in a brightly-lit indoor swimming pool, I was too scared to close my eyes underwater, certain that rubbery tentacles would wrap around my neck if I did. And swimming lessons in open water? Ha! Do I need to describe the terrors I had to overcome each week? My teachers thought I was afraid of the water. Little did they realize it wasn't the water that scared me: it was Octaman.
The irony here is that if I'd seen the movie from the beginning, even at that early age, I could have been spared the trauma. A brief glimpse of the monster suit had frightened me... but in the body of the film, the monster is on-screen so frequently that overexposure would have deadened the shock. Had I seen the whole film, I would have understood why the creature was hiding in an RV, so the incongruity of the situation would have impressed me less. And most importantly, I would have become so bored and frustrated with the human characters that — far from being scared by the monster at the end — I would probably have been cheering him on.
But I didn't see the whole movie. In fact, I was so deeply scared by what I did see that I actually avoided seeing Octaman again for my entire childhood. It wasn't until I was nearly thirty that I managed to stumble on an old video copy; and even after I'd bought it, it wasn't until several years later, when I went to transfer my remaining VHS tapes to DVD, that I bothered to watch it all the way through. I was no longer afraid of Octaman, of course... but I was more than a little bit embarrassed to see the movie through adult eyes.
Once I did see it, though, I found my reaction was neither fright nor embarrassment: it was deep, deep sadness.
Octaman represents a low point for practically everyone involved:
Those who haven't seen the movie might find that last statement a tad harsh. Those who have seen it know how agonizing it is merely to watch — imagine starring in it! Time seems to stand still. Characters seem to change personalities from scene to scene. Often the dialogue doesn't quite match the meaning of what's being expressed; rather, the words flow around the sense of the scene, just close enough to be understandable, just far enough away to be disconcerting. To make matters worse, some of the characters have had their voices added in post-production, so that their voices do not match the acoustics of their surroundings.
The odd, out-of-kilter feeling starts with the very first scene. A car drives up to a rural camp somewhere on the Western coast of Mexico. We don't get a clear look at the people who are in the car, and we don't actually see anyone get out. In fact, the arrival of the car doesn't seem to mean much of anything at all. Rather than concentrating on the car, the movie goes on to introduce us to the people who are already in the camp: Carlos, who is playing the guitar somewhere off at the edge of the encampment; Susana (Angeli); and Rick, the leader of the group, who is dictating his notes into a tape recorder.
This is what Rick says:
"A sampling of blood taken from these primitive people, whose main diet is seafood — fish — provides evidence that chemical changes produced by underwater detonations of atomic materials have been carried by tides and currents to all parts of the world."
It's good of him to explain the difficult scientific term "seafood". At least we know we're in comfortable monster movie territory: radiation is to blame, as usual. Later, though, we'll find out that Octaman's been the subject of local legend for several generations, which makes the whole radiation excuse seem a little (pardon the expression) fishy. Unless Pancho Villa had nuclear weapons...
Rick is soon joined by his assistant/fiancée Susana, who is actually Italian but is pretending to be Mexican. As they discuss the situation, they're approached by a Mexican guy in a straw hat, who is apparently one of the people who just arrived in the car; he gives them the latest data on the blood samples taken from the nearby "primitive" villagers. Why this man is bringing them the results when their main camp is here, I don't know. However, these results are even worse than Rick thought they'd be.
"Their main diet is out of the sea," says Susana. "What do you expect?"
To which Rick replies: "Small world, isn't it?"
And yes, we know what he's trying to say: isn't it amazing that tests thousands of miles away should have such a tremendous impact here? But that's not the sense in which the cliché is generally used.
Rick goes on: "Well, we might as well tell Carlos we'll pack up..." And here, just because Carlos is being mentioned, we have a three-second cut away to Carlos's face while Rick's lines continue.
We're five minutes into the film, and already I'm seasick.
Rick has apparently decided to cut his study short by a month, since his results are so much more drastic than he thought they'd be. But then, Rick's colleague Mort Stein approaches, carrying a can of something, and tells him he may not want to be so hasty. Here he gives us one of the movie's only arresting lines: "What would you say if I said I had the devil in this canister?"
Mort had been trying to obtain a water sample from the nearby river when he found... something else. Taking the lid off the container, he reveals a baby octopus with gold-colored eyes. An octopus in a brackish Mexican river is astonishing enough; but this little thing also makes strange hooting noises, which doesn't seem to me to be typical octopus behavior.
"The way he stares at you," says Susana, rapt. "It's as if he's got a brain behind his eyes." Actually, it's ganglia, and they're distributed through its body; but we get her drift.
The three of them go off to the riverbank where Mort caught the thing. They let it go for a moment and watch as it is dragged on strings scuttles to the water's edge. "It seems like it's waiting for a signal," says Susana. Mort goes to catch it before it can get away, and puts it back in the can...
And voilà! Behold our first glimpse of Octaman:
Suddenly, it is dusk in the camp, and a guy pretending to be a Mexican stereotype (his name is Raul) is hovering over another baby octopus in a jar. At first we think Rick's left his specimen behind, but the faux-Mexican clarifies the situation for us: "We will call you Nomber Two — numéro dos," he says in an atrociously bad accent, "to deesteenguish you from Meestair Stein's deescovery" (by curious coincidence, I call this whole movie Number Two). The octopus merely hoots in reply.
But down by the water, Octaman has finally decided to make a move. As he comes wading out of the river, we get our first good look at the monster suit... and we see that calling him "Octaman" is an act of charity. Two of his, ahem, "eight" tentacles now function as bipedal legs, with the ends of the tentacles bent forward like feet. Very much like feet. Two more of these tentacles are vestigial, extending from just behind and below the knee — or what would be the knee on a human being, if you get my hint. Of the remaining tentacles, the two in front seem fully functional, almost (ahem) like human arms; while the two growing out of his back merely hang like lifeless pieces of rubber (briefly, in scenes that pop up in the middle of the film, it seems like some redesigns were incorporated into the Octaman suit: someone seems to have thought to attach the arm-tentacles to the hanging ones in back, so that they move when the front ones move... this gives the rear tentacles an illusion of independent movement).
"Sí, señor," giggles Raul the faux-Mexican to the helpless baby octopus; "Or eez eet... señorita?" Octaman finds this as unbearable as we do, so he stomps in and kills Raul just as he starts to vivisect the poor octopus.
Rick arrives at the Institute in Vallejo, where he meets an old friend named Dr. Willard. He tries to interest Dr. Willard in the octopus (which has not survived the journey) — he describes it as "a mutation that has all the characteristics of a human cell," though how he came to that conclusion I have no idea. Amusingly enough, in a horrible sort of way, the "scientists" occasionally interrupt their discussion to reach into the dead octopus's tank and fiddle with its lifeless rubber body. Here, too, for the first time of many in the course of the movie, people who ought to know better refer to the octopus as a "squid".
Dr. Willard is unimpressed with Rick's discovery. "I'll agree that nowadays we can believe almost any theory that began from the time when Man first crawled out of the sea," he says — don't strain yourself trying to figure out what that means; his statement just gets worse the more you try to untangle it. Willard's point is this: Rick's assignment was to investigate radiation levels in the indigenous population. Discovering a fresh-water Mexican octopus with human characteristics is clearly not part of the mission.
A scene or two ago, Rick was talking about ending his study early, since his results were so conclusive. This would suggest that Rick had at least enough funds left to work for a little while longer. Now, because he's wasting time on unknown octopodes — even though his work is substantially and successfully done — Dr. Willard says he won't renew Rick's funding. And the most confusing thing about this is that this decision apparently leaves Rick without sufficient money even to fly back to camp.
Rick turns to some old friends of Susana's: a wealthy expatriate Coney Island carnival owner named Johnny Caruso, who now runs a ranch nearby; and his partner Steve, an experienced animal trainer. Caruso has recently seen King Kong on the late show, and is excited about the idea of finding some strange animal to bring back and put on display. Anybody who watches King Kong and comes away with the desire to play Carl Denham obviously wasn't paying attention, and deserves everything he gets.
Rick and Susana go back with Caruso in Caruso's RV. Susana, we're told, has spent most of the trip to Vallejo at the beauty parlor — you know these women scientists — but she comes back looking even more tired and drawn than she did when she left. Several days in an RV with the principal male cast of Octaman will do that to you, I guess. Anyway: when they arrive back at the camp, they find it strangely dark and deserted. Although it's been several days, Raul's body is still lying in the tent where Octaman killed him. It seems Carlos and Mort Stein have each made their excuses and gone off to do their own things for a couple of days. Naturally, they get back just in time to join the group wringing their hands over the stinking cadaver.
The next day, Rick and the others meet the only official investigation Raul's death will receive: the jefe of a nearby village (who looks like a young Maharishi) drops by, along with an unnamed assistant and a young man named Davido. The jefe asks a few perfunctory questions; on learning that the dead man has been buried already, he shrugs and concludes there's little else to be done. He does mention, though, that Davido's grandfather had been killed in a similar manner by a legendary monster. Davido tells his story through a flashback, during which his grandfather has his face ripped open in a special effect Andy Milligan would have scorned.
Before the jefe and his assistant leave the camp, they decide to "borrow" one of Rick's specimen containers (because they're Mexican, says the movie, and therefore comically dishonest... right?). On the way back, they stop at the side of the road for a siesta (because they're Mexican, says the movie, and therefore comically lazy); when they resume their journey, they've forgotten their machetes in the underbrush (because they're Mexican, says the movie, and therefore comically stupid). When they stop at a roadside bar to have a few drinks (insert Anglocentric ethnic slur here), they're ambushed on the way out by Octaman, who has been following the scent of the specimen container. Here Octaman reveals a startling ability: he kills the Mexicans by impaling them with his tentacles.
That leaves us with Davido. Susana is the only member of the cast who can pronounce Davido's name correctly; but that's OK, because Davido is an Anglo actor in brownface who has the worst fake Mexican accent of anybody in the movie. Davido attempts to convince us he's really Hispanic by whistling the Mexican Hat Dance. He's not only unconvincing as a Mexican: his character is written as though he were a boy of perhaps 16, when it seems he's in his mid-20's at the youngest. If anything, his appearance is even more embarrassing than the rubber Octaman suit — so, following the logic of this film, he's on-screen almost as much as the monster.
So now we have the basic setup, and the characters and situations are all more or less in place. We have enough of a plot to sustain (let's be generous) another 20 minutes' worth of movie. Unfortunately, Octaman has almost an hour left to go. The experienced Bad Movie Fan knows what to expect: the movie is going to slow down and repeat itself. This is roughly how the next half-hour of the movie goes, boiled down to its most basic summary: Rick and most of the others go off to look by the river, and Octaman attacks the RV. Rick and most of the others go off again to search by the river, and Octaman attacks the RV. Rick and some of the others go off again to search, this time on a boat on the river; Octaman attacks them first, and then goes to attack the RV.
But as ridiculous as it sounds in summary, the devilfish is in the details.
This is the way the first attack plays out: everyone is gathered by the RV at night, when (apropos of nothing) Stein suddenly says, "Things equal to a third thing are equal to each other." Well, this is true; also, an object in motion tends to remain in motion — unless it's a woman... in which case it will trip, fall to the ground, and remain at rest until either helped to her feet by a man, or attacked by the monster. But true or not, as a conversation-starter it leaves something to be desired. Rick asks him what the heck he's talking about, and Stein gives an explanation that (as usual) makes things even worse: "Octopod species, jellyfish... or kin to the mutants that were born in Hiroshima."1
"That's a mighty sentimental notion for a scientist," replies Rick. Is it? Is it really? How can you tell? The only thing I can figure is that they're playing MadLibs. Stein could have said anything, and it would have prompted the same response:
See? It makes just as much sense.STEIN Rotten pink monkey vestibule, chicky-chicky BOOM chick.
Anyway: Davido comes running in and informs them he's found more of the strange octopodes. Rick and the other researchers go off to the river, leaving Susana with Johhny and Steve. Steve makes some sort of condescending remark about a woman's place being in the kitchen, and Susana stalks off angrily to join Rick. Steve — who, we've been told earlier, is supposed to be a close friend of Susana's — mutters something to Johnny about "keeping an eye on that one" and slinks out after her. This leaves Johhny alone, stewing over the fact that the expedition hasn't turned up anything spectacular yet.
Up ambles Octaman. In spite of the fact that Octaman grunts to himself a lot, the monster still manages to sneak up on Caruso (he's also accompanied by a sound effect that's a little like someone imitating a heartbeat on a didgeridoo, but I'm not sure if that's something the other characters are supposed to be able to hear). Grabbing him from behind, Octaman squeezes Johnny with all his might and begins mauling him with his teeth. Johnny cries out to Carlos for help — remember Carlos? He hasn't had anything to do except play his guitar through the whole movie so far. Now Carlos shows up with a rifle... but before he can do anything, Octaman reaches out with one of his (razor-sharp) tentacles and kills him with a single blow. Then he drops Johnny and goes for what he's really after... what all large sea creatures want, deep down:
Now, as for the second attack: it apparently takes place the next night, but since there is no daytime scene between the two attacks, it seems to us at first that Susana has merely changed her outfit. You know these women scientists. Anyway, in the intervening padding character-building scenes, Susana has shown herself to be very upset and afraid. Part of her anxiety has to do with the feeling that something out in the darkness is calling to her, or whispering to her... it's as though she has some sort of strange connection to the creature. And, of course, she's in shock over the deaths of Raul and Carlos. But prior to the next attack, Susana undergoes a complete change of attitude. Maybe she's just trying to cheer up the injured Johnny; but in any case, her sudden change of mood comes as a bit of a shock:
Shortly thereafter, she goes to exit the RV... and surprise! The monster is waiting for her. Panic ensues.SUSANA: Don' worry, Johnny. We'll going to bring dat thing back alive, for you an' your circus.
As for the third attack: the already-slow pace gets even slower as Rick, Steve and Stein go off in a canoe in the middle of the night to see if they can find the creature. On the face of it, this seems like an incredibly stupid idea, but on consideration... it is an incredibly stupid idea. Sure enough, Octaman does come to get them. But instead of doing what he'd do if the boat was, say, full of Mexican non-characters — that is, crush the boat with his tentacles and kill everybody in it — the monster instead reaches up gingerly without upsetting the boat. This gives Rick time to sever one of its tentacles (though in the ensuing scenes, where the monster gets plenty of screen time, all its tentacles are whole). Stein is grabbed and pulled overboard, which would be bad enough... but then, Steve and Rick pull out their rifles and start shooting blindly into the water. In the pitch-darkness, it's a wonder they don't shred poor Stein. But miraculously, Stein isn't shot; the creature drops him and heads back to his usual target... the RV.
Rick and Steve make for shore as quickly as they can, eventually leaving Stein to bleed by himself in the boat. In the meantime, Octaman has gone for something even more tempting to a mutant sea creature than His Bukket. You know what I mean: the human woman.
A word about subtext: there are those who insist that these movies, Creature from the Black Lagoon and its ilk, are thinly-disguised racist screeds. The suggestion is that the slightly less-than-human monsters that crave white women (for some inexplicable reason, and in defiance of all biology) are supposed to represent Black men. I wish I could say the interpretation was as nonsensical as the idea itself. Unfortunately, I've known many people who would have jumped to that conclusion eagerly. Judging from Octaman's treatment of its Hispanic characters (not counting those that are played by Anglo [or Italian] actors, including Ricardo ["Rick"], who is played by Kerwin Matthews), I can't promise that the movie is entirely innocent. But there's a different, subtler kind of prejudice going on here that may be even more difficult to overcome than the racial sort: anthropocentrism.
I'm not just thinking about the way these "half-man, half-sea creature" monsters lust after human females, though that's obviously part of it. Rather, I'm thinking of the idea, made very clear in Octaman, that the human species is the ideal toward which nature — and some vague force referred to (erroneously) as evolution — aspires.
From the very beginning, when the baby octopus is found, the scientists insist on comparing the intelligence they see in its eyes to human intelligence (though they do note in passing that the octopus is an extremely intelligent creature in its own right). Then, we're told that radiation has mutated the cephalopods into a specifically human form, as though a nudge were all that was needed to start their cells moving up the evolutionary scale. But what in the world would cause an octopus to acquire specifically human characteristics? It's ridiculous. There would have to be many, many steps involved before an octopus would start looking and acting like a human, and none of them would be to the octopus's advantage. For crying out loud, forward-pointing eyes? Walking upright on two (ahem, four, again being charitable) of its eight independent tentacles? Growing a spine? All these things might be admirable in humans, considering the way humans have evolved over millennia and considering the environments in which humans have thrived. But far from being steps up some teleological ladder for an octopus, any of these "advantages" would mean the poor animal was hard-pressed to survive in a normal octopus environment.
But then, why on earth would I think the movie's creators would have any idea how evolution and mutation actually work? They're foggy on the most basic elements of common sense. And this brings us straight back to the monster's third attack, during which he grabs poor Susana and starts to carry her off to his watery lair. Rick and the others rush to save her; it's here they discover that Octaman really doesn't like their flashlights. Light sensitivity might make sense in a deep-sea creature, but let's not forget Octaman lives in a shallow stream. Oh — and he's also very active during the daytime, so the feeble beams of the flashlights don't seem like a credible deterrent.
The business with the flashlights is pure, sweet, crystalline logic compared to what follows. Rick pours a thin line of gasoline in a circle around the slow-moving monster and lights it. His plan is to let this tiny, underfueled fire burn out all the oxygen from the circle — this wide, outdoor circle — and that should render Octaman unconscious.
(Which it does. What else were you expecting?)
Once the beast is unconscious, they throw a net over it. Just to make sure it stays out, they grab a rifle and shoot it with a tranquilizer dart. That's right: they had tranquilizer darts, but they chose to light a fire around it instead. By this point, you may be getting frustrated with this movie's refusal to make sense... but there's somenody who's even more fed up, and that's Octaman himself. During a particularly ghastly night-time exchange between Mort Stein and Susana, the creature decides to take matters into his own tentacles:
Suddenly it becomes clear to us: even more than the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Octaman is the tragic hero of his own movie. He not only has his doomed desire for a human woman to deal with: he's got this horrible script. What, after all, has Octaman done up to this point to make him so monstrous? He's released a few of his helpless octopod relatives from captivity; he's relieved the movie of some obnoxious ethnic stereotypes; he's tried his best to get the remaining human characters to shut up and go away. He's also got a little crush on poor Pier Angeli; what's so awful about that? Alas, his brief attempt to bring the movie to a dignified close comes to nothing: Susana stands up to him, waggles her fingers and says, "Back! Back!" Poor Octaman is unable to think of a convincing response to this, and who could blame him?STEIN Smells good after the rain. The sounds of the unseen world...
There's more. Actually, there's a lot more — probaby about 20 minutes more — but I don't care to go into much more detail. There's a reprise of the famous scene from Black Lagoon, in which the creature uses fallen trees to prevent the scientists from leaving. However, the scene has a much different effect when the vehicle being blocked is a car rather than a boat. Though the humans make a great deal of fuss over the blockage, and even manage to leave the road and get trapped by the monster in (of all places) an inland cave, by the end of the movie they have to admit what we've figured all along: they could have just turned around and driven back the way they came to get out.
So by the time the survivors have escaped from the cave, and are heading for the ambush at the RV that had scared me so deeply as a child, my feelings toward the movie and the monster had changed completely. I was longing for the creature to jump out of the vehicle and start pounding heads; after all, the script had been pounding mine long enough. Since the movie is reluctant to give the Anglo actors the fates they deserve, Octaman doesn't really get to do much damage before he meets his end in a hail of bullets. And the final indignity? Director Essex doesn't even give us the classic final shot of his title monster sinking into the depths. Underwater photography must have cost too much — or perhaps the costume wasn't built for that sort of thing. The end result is a very disappointing ending to a very disappointing movie.
1. Since I have no wish to pull a Medved and misquote a movie to make it seem worse, I should point out that the sentence might end "... are kin to the mutants that were born in Hiroshima." This makes more grammatical sense, but just as little sense in context.