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Oh, the self-inflicted agony...

When the idea of a Jaws Rip-off Themed Roundtable came up, I just had to choose Tentacles. Little did I realize that the movie had gone out of print, since last I saw it gathering dust on the shelves as part of MGM's "Midnight Movies" series on VHS. Though used copies are readily available -- cheap -- I had to think:

If I'm gonna have to special order the silly thing, I might as well do it right.

So I ended up getting the widescreen DVD from Italy.

On the one hand, I've been able to experience the movie in the best possible presentation... which is important when you're trying to be fair to a movie as lousy as this one. On the other hand... although the DVD box says it contains a mono English-language track, it doesn't really. It's in Italian, with Italian subtitles. And I understand Italian only well enough to know that the guy who does the interviews for Shriek Show DVDs doesn't speak Italian very well either. So if I got some of my details wrong, I blame it on my faulty skills as a translator.

All this explains why I ended up reviewing not Tentacles, but rather...


Polypum a multitudine pedum: ut diximus sic appellatum. Quóquomodo coxeris, malum dices.

(The octopus has many arms: thus, as we say, it gets its name. Whatever way you cook it, you'll say it's bad.)

-- Platina, De Honeste Voluptatem, 1475

I. A Movie With Teeth
I was eight years old when Jaws came out, in June of 1975. I was too young to go see it, just as I had been too young to see The Exorcist a year or so before. Perhaps I could have seen either of them if my parents had been willing to take me, but that was about as likely as their letting me shave my head and go to school wearing jeans four sizes too large. So I did what many other frustrated kids did back then: I read the books, and waited until I was older to experience the movies first-hand.

But even if I didn't get the chance to see either movie, I remember vividly the impact both films had on the general public. It's hard to imagine now, but The Exorcist had the reputation of being more of an ordeal than a movie, a terrifying test of nerves that sent some impressionable people screaming from the theaters. As deep as the impact of The Exorcist was on the cultural landscape, though, everyone understood that it was still a movie... once the film was over, you could make your way back home, still shaking with terror, yet secure in the knowledge that the threat of demonic possession was remote.

Jaws was different.

I lived at the shore most of my life, and grew up within a few hundred feet of the Atlantic Ocean. The area in which we lived saw a huge influx of tourists during the summer months, and the year that Jaws came out, they started doing some very strange things. Many people were afraid even to walk on the beach: they were convinced that a shark was going to jump up out of the water and grab them. Parents watched anxiously as their young children dipped their toes at the water's edge. And everybody -- the fat man with the sailor's cap and sunglasses, covered with oily suntan lotion; the woman with the pinched face in the prim one-piece, looking up from her Jacqueline Susanne or John Jakes; the kids with their bright sun-bleached blond hair, pausing as they built their sand castle -- everybody kept scanning the water for that telltale fin as it broke the surface.

I thought they were nuts. Having spent enough time by the seaside, I was aware of sharks, and knew something about their habits and characteristics. I knew there was very little chance of being attacked by a shark, still less by a mammoth Great White. Even in recent years, when we've had a remarkable increase in the number of attacks along the Eastern seaboard, the number of incidents is still very small. I wasn't worried about being attacked by a shark when I went into the water. I had more pressing things to worry about: stinging jellyfish, and crabs that pinched your toes if you stepped on them. And the undertow, of course. But when it came to movie monsters, giant killer sharks left me unimpressed.

No. What I was afraid of was Octaman.

When I was little, back when Octaman was fist released to television, I had the misfortune to tune into the last few minutes of the movie. I had been flipping the channels on our old black and white TV, and suddenly there he was -- Octaman. As an adult, I can look at Rick Baker's early creature design and recognize it as the ridiculous rubber suit it is. But as a child of seven, I was terrified by the octopus-man. Keep in mind I didn't have to suffer through the whole miserable movie: I only saw the climax, with the creature flailing its tentacles and snapping its beak at the heroes. It left me scarred for life. I was taking swimming lessons at the time, at an indoor pool in a YMCA several miles north of where we were living at the time; and even in the safety of the shallow end of a chlorinated, brightly-lit pool at the Y, I was convinced that if I closed my eyes underwater, Octaman would get me.

So even though Jaws didn't have quite the same effect on me that it had on a lot of other people, I can relate to the feeling of seeing something on-screen that inspires a long-lasting, totally irrational fear. I can also understand why other people in the entertainment industry would want to capitalize on a movie which inspired such a strong reaction among so many people.

Taken all together, I suppose this explains why, when the idea of a Jaws-related roundtable came up in the B-Masters' Cabal, my first thought was for Tentacles, a movie I had seen only once, 18 years ago, on TV... a movie, furthermore, that I didn't remember enjoying particularly; which is currently out of print in this country; and which I eventually had to special order from Italy (where it has also apparently gone out of print). But the movie is about an octopus, after all, and in some way, I guess the primal terror I experienced at my first glimpse of Octaman has remained with me.

II. It Came From...
It's not as though I really need an excuse to be fascinated by the octopus and its cephalopod kin. After all, they are sometimes referred to, even by the scientists who study them, as alien brains on earth. If some humans are offended at the notion that Man is closely related to gorillas and chimps, then they should be glad they weren't born octopodes... imagine having slugs and clams as your near relatives! And yet, having evolved from such primitive origins, cephalopods have developed sophisticated brains... and these brains are entirely unlike the kind of brains we're used to.

We have a tendency to imagine non-human intelligence -- even extraterrestrial intelligence -- as being very much like ours. We're used to the vertebrate nervous system: one main neural pathway, with a sort of swelling at one end that does most of the thinking (the brain, of course... what did you think I meant?!). Since this is the only model for intelligence that we're used to, we project it onto our conception of alien intelligence. The classic example in film is The Brain from Planet Arous: here we have a disembodied intellect from space which appears as a huge human brain. It trails a spinal cord like a tail, in spite of the fact it has no actual spine. Furthermore, it's so anatomically similar to the our own brains that it even has a "fissure of Rolando" (instead of, say, a "kraalginge of Snerdiblerx").

In the meantime, under the sea, we have a genuinely otherworldly intelligence. Cephalopods have their brains at the end of not one but two neural channels, which are punctuated by nodes of neurons called ganglia. Apparently the ganglia in the cephalopod's tentacles act more or less independently of the creature's brain; the brain sends out basic instructions to the feet, and the feets do their stuff1. Cephalopods move by jet propulsion, and since they live underwater, their sense of direction has to include the extra dimension of depth. They don't make noise, but they do change color -- possibly as a method of communication. In other words, they are so unlike us that they put to shame our paltry, anthropocentric attempts to imagine alien intelligence.

We may not be able to guess what they're thinking, but they are thinking. They adapt their behavior to changing situations. They find individualized solutions to problems. According to some researchers, they may even play. And yet they are very far removed from us in terms of evolution: our common ancestor was something indescribably ancient and primitive. Not to mention squishy.

At the end of the Second World War, funds from the Marshall Plan were given to Italian researchers who were conducting experiments on cephalopod intelligence. It was hoped that scientists could apply the lessons they learned from these strangely different creatures to the field of artificial intelligence. The sea creatures' brains turned out to be too complex to yield much practical data, though the studies did raise some fascinating questions about the nature of intelligence. Still, thinking of questions of intelligence: how on earth are we to explain the fact that thirty-odd years later, the nation that started the study of cephalopod intelligence gave us a movie as dumb as Tentacoli?

III. A Movie With 8 Arms and No Legs
But naturally, the inspiration for Tentacoli didn't come from Italian scientific research. It came from Jaws. Tentacoli was produced and directed by a man named Ovidio Assonitis, directing under the pseudonym "Oliver Hellman". Earlier, Assonitis had made a surprisingly successful attempt to cash in on the Exorcist craze with a movie called Beyond the Door (known as Chi Sei? in Italy). After the international success of Beyond the Door, and the inevitable lawsuit from Warner Brothers, it seems only natural that Assonitis should mount a (relatively) big-budget Jaws rip-off, make a few bucks and face the inevitable lawsuit from Universal.

Tentacoli is the kind of movie the Italians refer to as a "colossal" -- a movie with a bigger budget than usual for genre films of its ilk, often with a few big-name actors to give the film a veneer of authenticity. In fact, the website from which I bought my copy of the video called it a "super-colossal", and one look at the cast will tell you why: in addition to minor luminary Bo Hopkins in the lead role, we have (in diminishing order of screen time): John Huston, Shelley Winters, Claude Akins, and in a cameo so brief it's barely worthy of mention, Henry Fonda. By 1977, Assonitis was an experienced producer, but still a journeyman director: he had yet to learn that just because you could afford to pepper your cast with so many stars, that didn't necessarily mean it was a good idea. The script, which is pretty thin to begin with, is further weakened by having to accomodate all these extended cameos: the stars' scenes were shot all together (in Atlanta, substituting for California), away from the Greek locations where most of the action shots were going to be filmed. Thus, except for Hopkins, the stars share no scenes with the killer octopus, and their involvement in the actual plot of the movie wanes just as the action is heating up. By the climax of the film, everybody but Hopkins is out of the picture, and their individual story threads are left dangling like... well... limp tentacles.

In spite of her having slightly more generous screen time than some of her co-stars, Winters comes off worst. This is partly because she's asked to play an alcoholic scatterbrain... but it's mostly because she's forced to wear some of the most hideous costumes anyone's ever had to wear in a motion picture. Especially the hats. The Italian DVD adds to the injustice by using photos of the lovely Delia Boccardo, who plays Bo Hopkins' unfortunate wife, in place of Winters' own in her Special Features bio.

Shelley Winters and her big ugly hat, take one.

The movie begins -- how else? -- with a shot of the ocean, over which the opening credits play. The view would be more impressive if the shot weren't accompanied by the prosaic, oddly out-of-place sound of a taxi radio. There also seems to be some curious glare on the right-hand side of the picture, as though the cameraman had somehow forgotten to compensate for shooting into the sun. Then the camera pulls back a bit, and we see the reason for the glare: we're seeing the view from inside a taxi. The glare is the sunlight reflected on the window, through which the shot has been framed. Well, at least that explains the sound of the radio... still, if they'd only rolled down the window they wouldn't have had that obnoxious glare.

With the appearance of the title, we have our first official Jaws reference. The titles of many Jaws rip-offs refer to a shark or other sort of killer beast, preferably aquatic; but the true rip-offs devote room in their titles to a specific, lethal body part belonging to said killer beast. The people who make and market these films know they have little or no intrinsic value; the only hope they have of succeeding is abandoning any pretense of originality and tying the movie directly into the Jaws phenomenon (thus, for example, the killer bear movie Grizzly gets a nod for plagiarizing Spielberg to the n-th degree, while maintaining that the resemblance is all a coincidence... but it's the Grizzly rip-off Claws that goes the extra distance to disgrace itself through its very title).

Stelvio Cipriani's extremely "seventies"-style theme music creeps into the soundtrack, and in moments we go from a panoramic view of the ocean to the middle of a busy highway. The camera, still inside the taxi, then pans around to the front seat, where it proceeds to zoom down and in to the taxi radio itself. The credits continue, and the camera remains fixed on the radio for full 58 seconds.

58 seconds is a long time to hold a shot of anything, let alone something as dull as a radio. All of Henry Fonda's scenes together only add up to about four minutes, so this means the radio is on screen almost as long as the Special Guest Star. It will turn out later that the radio has a very important reason for being in the film, but we in the audience can't be expected to know that. All we know is that the movie is barely 45 seconds old, and we're being confronted with an extremely boring shot that seems to last forever.

Assonitis seems to have thought this was foreshadowing, borrowing the literary technique of suggesting something before it actually happens; but he was wrong. Foreshadowing would have been to throw a meaningful glance at the radio and then pass on. Foreshadowing would have been to give the audience tantalizing little glimpses here and there, that would have come together and made the viewers go "Aha!" to themselves later in the film. This technique does just the opposite: it ensures that the viewers have lost interest in the movie long before they have the chance to put the pieces together. It's a mistake, yes; a serious lapse in judgement. Still, it's a carefully considered mistake, rather than the simple oversight we might have expected from a film such as this.

Con la partecipazione straordinaria della radio nel ruolo della radio.
The tension just builds and builds.

The camera at last swings up from the radio, as the taxi driver rolls down the window. Now if the window had been rolled down in the first place... oh, never mind. Assonitis evidently wanted to reinforce in the minds of the audience that we were, in fact, in a taxi; thus he wanted to capture the glare before we realized that we were really looking out a window. It's a mistake, yes; but it's a carefully considered mistake, rather than the simple oversight we might have expected from a film such as this.

As we look out the window, we get our next clear Jaws reference: a sign reading "Solana Beach Annual Junior Yacht Race, August 21st". Jaws had featured a similar "Welcome to Amity" billboard, with a note at the bottom about the annual Amity regatta. In Spielberg's film, the billboard had a far greater role than mere exposition. First of all, viewers would have seen that note about the regatta early in the film, and conjured up images of a shark smorgasbord later on. Actually, the promised regatta doesn't happen during the film, but it does awaken some expectations in the audience. Most importantly, though, the billboard is seen vandalized later in the film: someone has added a huge shark fin, and painted in a panicked expression on the face of its central image, a girl on a raft. At first, it seems funny... and then the audience remembers that one of the shark's victims, little Alex Kintner, was killed in a similar situation. Gradually, the image starts to seem funny again, as Hooper and the Mayor have their argument in front of it... and then Hooper points out that the scale of the enormous fin is just about right, and the humor is gone for good. Here we have a clear illustration of the danger of ripping off a well-made movie: an all-star cast in the Italian copy is out-acted by a billboard in the original.

The taxi pulls up to a grassy park by a sea wall. The door swings open, and we see a pair of white-clad legs emerge (just in time for the director's credit!). This unidentified figure is wearing incredibly ugly black and white shoes; he also walks with a noticeable limp.


Who is this mysterious person? Clearly, from the way the camera takes care not to reveal anything but the lower half of his body, this is someone terribly important. We expect the camera to pull up and introduce him: is it Henry Fonda? Or John Huston? We never find out. Instead, the legs walk unsteadily out of the frame, never to be seen again, while the camera zooms past him to a mother and her small child having a picnic on the embankment.

It's a mistake, yes; but it's a carefully considered mistake, rather than...


(I think I'm beginning to sense a pattern here.)

OK: The real focus of the scene is the woman, Susan, and her infant son Jonathan. As Susan fusses over the boy, something is watching them from the water. Just as this unseen something starts to rise up out of the sea, Susan's friend Ruth drives by on the far side of the road. Ruth calls out to her friend, who leaves her baby in his stroller by the embankment and runs all the way over to the car.

What happens next has been criticized as extremely unrealistic. Modern critics seem unwilling to admit that a mother could leave her child alone, unattended, while she runs across the street to talk to someone. I disagree; I think that even today there are plenty of people who would do such a thoughtless and irresponsible thing. I should also point out that the camera's depth of field makes the distance across the road seem greater than it really is. What I do want to point out about this scene is that it, too, imitates a scene in Jaws, and that for once it actually does so very well.

As Ken Begg points out in his superb review of Jaws, Spielberg uses a clever editing technique to build tension during a scene on the beach. We see Roy Scheider as Sheriff Brody tying to relax with his family, but he can't keep from staring out at the water. Beachgoers pass in front of the camera, blocking our view of Brody. Each passing shadow acts like a screen wipe, revealing a tighter and tighter shot of Brody. We barely even notice the difference, but the result is a subtle build-up of suspense.

Assonitis uses a similar technique in this scene. The two women chatting in the foreground slowly lose their prominence. Starting even before the two women have started their conversation, the camera shifts its focus to the middleground, calling our attention to the baby indirectly. Passing cars block the stroller from our sight for a moment or two; we cut back to the two women briefly, and then return to the stroller in even tighter focus, as more cars pass by. Finally, a school bus drives by, and in the short space of its passing, the stroller disappears.

I suppose if you're going to kill a baby in your movie, this is the way to do it. However, if you're going to start the film with infanticide, this implies a few things about the rest of the film that you'll need to be careful about. First of all, it's going to be very difficult to come up with anything more harrowing. Next, killing children is a pretty strong gesture, so you're going to have to match the tone of your film to something as terrible as the image you've opened with. Jaws never trivializes the bloody death of young Alex Kintner; in fact, it keeps emphasizing the seriousness of the tragedy over and over again, so that your forced to share some measure of the family's loss. But if you simply dismiss a child's death with a shrug and go on with your picture -- as Tentacoli does -- then you've made a tremendous mis-step, and one that the audience is unlikely to overlook.

This scene also brings up the next deliberate mistake I need to mention: the music that composer Stelvio Cipriani uses to signal the octopus attacks. Remember, John Williams' music for Jaws was one of the elements that made the film such an outstanding success. Williams used music based on a simple, insistent two-note leitmotif ("Bum-bum... Bum-bum...!") to signal the shark's approach. As simple as it is, it's become one of the most recognizable movie themes of all time. It starts in the low strings, growling quietly, and then gets louder and faster as the (mostly unseen) danger comes closer. Its gradual build helps make the tension of the attack scenes all but unbearable... which is exactly the effect the director was trying to convey. So how did Stelvio Cipriani decide to characterize the killer octopus that was supposed to out-Jaws Jaws? With a noodly, sterile little figure that goes nowhere at all. It's also played on a harpsichord, an instrument whose dry, rustly tone was described by French composer Maurice Ravel as being like "skeletons copulating on a tin roof". Just the sound for a huge sea creature, don't you think?

The harpsichord leitmotif serves as a transition betweeen Susan's horrified screams and our introduction to a peg-legged sailor named Bill Sullivan. Sullivan, who's working on his trimaran, the Codfish, radios the Coast Guard for some weather information; then he goes back to work pulling up sea water in a bucket to scrub down his deck. Sullivan, the scarred and unkempt sailor, is probably intended to suggest Quint from Jaws, with his vessel the Codfish being a tongue-in-cheek suggestion of a low-budget Orca.

Here, again, the camera crew brings all their talent to the task of realizing the director's unique vision:

We really didn't need to see this, did we?
Make it stop... please... just make it stop...

While the sailor is busy, his assistant Jack runs of to eat Sullivan's lunch. In mid-chew, Jack hears an ominous splash, followed by the sound of a gun shot. Once again we hear the harpsichord motif... but this time, there's something different about it: it was probably added as an afterthought, because we can hear a very sloppy edit as the music stops. Anyway: Jack rushes back to the trimaran, just in time to see Bill's bucket being pulled off through the water. Of Bill, there is no trace.

The harpsichord leitmotif leads us again to the next vignette: a weedy-looking teenage boy is trying to get some fishing done, while the girl in the boat with him is trying to convince him that she's a better kisser than all the other girls he can name. This is supposed to be funny, because the girl is somewhat overweight. Ha. Strangely, we don't get a very good look at either kid. We see them briefly from above; then we see a view of their boat from water-level... as something moves closer and closer... There is a struggle as the girl decides to give the boy first-hand proof of her kissing skill. The boy just gets mad as his fishing pole falls into the water. He goes to retrieve it, and out of the water pops... another Jaws reference.

Scary one-eyed corpse popping out at the audience? Check.

It's the remains of poor Bill Sullivan, making a sudden, sodden appearance... just like the remains of the sailor that surprise the diving Hooper in Jaws. Here, though, the dummy used to represent the body is so unconvincing that the camera (wisely) refuses to allow it to stay in focus for long.

Suddenly it's night. We finally get a clear glimpse of the boy (though the girl is seen only in passing), wrapped in a blanket and staring in shock. Now, even granting that they found the body close to sunset -- which is not at all clear -- it's still a little odd to think the kids would still be in shock, and still be on the dock, by the time full darkness had fallen. In any case, the camera soon starts tracking a pair of legs that wander into the frame. This time, the legs actually belong to someone who features in the plot: Ned Turner (John Huston), a veteran journalist. Turner had just finished visiting the scene of the baby's disappearance, when he heard about the body in the water. He's come to get some information from his old sparring partner Sheriff Robards (Claude Akins)2.

It's Bill Sullivan, replies the Sheriff -- at least, he thinks it's Sullivan. He explains further by pulling back the sheet. It seems there's really not enough left to make a clear identification. Robards and Turner go as far as to say the remains are scarcely identifiable as human -- a mere skeleton -- which leads me to think their reactions were shot before the corpse prop had been built, or the discovery scene shot (and this would explain the sudden nightfall, too).

One of Robards' deputies asks whether it's possible Sullivan could have been caught in some of the heavy machinery that's being used by the Trojan corporation to build a tunnel nearby. Robards thinks this is unlikely, and in any case it doesn't explain the (apparently related) death of the little boy. The Sheriff begs Turner to downplay the mystery of the two deaths, and just confine himself to "death by unknown causes".

Turner is uneasy about the two deaths; also, the connection to the tunnel project, however tenuous, begins to take on more and more importance in his mind. His research keeps him up all night, much to the distress of his sister (Shelley Winters), who has recently moved back to the family home with her son Tommy (though it seems Tommy has inherited the family's penchant for hideous sleepwear, one can always hope he'll be spared their fondness for early-morning alcohol). When Turner does actually get around to filing his report on the deaths, it evidently contains one or two scandalous hints about Trojan Tunnels, and soon the owner of the company, Whitehead (Henry Fonda), is furious.

Whitehead does indeed have something to hide about the tunnel project, and he's particularly upset that his factotum, Corey, has been answering Turner's "harmless" questions without consulting him. Corey tries to settle his boss down, but Whitehead will not be placated. He sends Corey off to make sure that none of the investigations come too close to his activities.

(The character of Whitehead relies on a familiar trope: the Evil Capitalist who will stop at nothing to make himself richer. Though there is no corresponding character in Jaws, his type would become more and more common in the many Jaws wannabes that followed over the years. It's important to note, though, that Tentacoli plays pretty fair by Whitehead: he seems like a perfectly believable, unscrupulous businessman, who sees the octopus attacks as mere collateral damage that will be hard to trace to him in court. On the one hand, he isn't a larger-than-life crime boss out to kill anyone who stands in his way; and on the other hand, he doesn't get eaten in the last reel by the creature he helped create.)

Turner, in the meantime, goes to visit a scientist at the California Oceanographic Institute by name of Will Gleason. Gleason is played by the astonishingly charmless Bo Hopkins:


Gleason, like Turner, has come to the conclusion that there is probably a connection between the nearby tunnel activity and the attacks. He's even sent two of his researchers to investigate, with the cooperation of the Trojan workers. Unbeknownst to Gleason, Corey has approached the two divers and tried to bribe them not to look too carefully. However, the divers refuse to be bought off, and the Trojan crew must either comply with the investigation or face a full-scale inquiry from the Marine Commission. A two-man diving bell is prepared and lowered in the vicinity of the tunnel; inside, the two men stay in radio contact with the ship above them as they descend to the sea floor.

As the bell reaches bottom in 55 meters of water, the camera pays particular attention to the radio...

IV. My Radio Is Telling Me To Kill
As the first diver exits the bell and starts swimming away, we hear ominous, dissonant string chords playing on the soundtrack. Then, we cut back to the second diver in the bell, putting on his equipment. Suddenly, we cut back to the water, re-joining the music in mid-chord. This sort of cross-cutting happens several time before both divers are in the water and the scene can continue without interruption. It's hard to explain how jarring this is... It's as though they'd interrupted someone speaking, not just in the middle of a sentence, but in the middle of a word: "Why, hello th--" [new scene] -- "ere! How are you?"

If I had to guess at an explanation, it would be this: the scenes inside and outside the diving bell were probably separate in the original working cut of the film. The music was dubbed in over the shots of the divers entering the water and swimming away. At some point, Assonitis or his editors must have decided that it would be more fluid to intercut the two sequences (and to be fair, they were right). Unfortunately, the music had already been added, so while the visual aspect of the newly-edited scenes works well, the audio tracks don't match, and the result is very disturbing.

The two divers discover some electronic equipment on the sea bed, but it's all been wrecked. Suddenly, there's a disturbance above them; when they go to investigate, an enormous octopus comes sliding out of its cave. One of the divers disappears in a cloud of ink, and the other diver swims back to the diving bell in a panic. Once inside, he gets on the radio and sends his frantic requests to be taken back up to the surface immediately (bends or no bends). But before the bell reaches the surface, it comes to an abrupt halt; water pours in as the metal sides begin to buckle... and the last thing the diver sees is an enormous eye staring through the porthole...

Gleason is distraught over the deaths of his two friends, so he and his wife abandon their study of killer whales (plot point!) to go off to Solana Beach to investigate. Whitehead's envoy Corey attempts to dissuade Gleason from going on (though once again, I should point out that Corey doesn't resort to unusual threats, or hire a coterie of Ninjas to make his point). Corey's not alone in trying to dissuade Gleason: His wife Vicky has a Bad Feeling About This, and begs him not to go diving near the wreck of the bell. But Gleason is determined, though he promises Vicky that he will only be underwater for four minutes at most.

What Gleason finds under the sea is very disturbing. First of all, he finds wreckage of other human artifacts, including a moped, that indicate the octopus has been chomping on more human snacks than anyone expected. He also finds the ruined electronics equipment, and speculates darkly on its purpose. Finally, he and his co-diver find... umm... what I think is supposed to be an enormous fish kill. What it looks like is a bunch of fish standing on their heads. No, no: it looks like a bunch of plastic fish-shaped lawn ornaments sitting on the sea bed. Perhaps real masses of dead fish look like this on the ocean floor, but somehow the effect is less than startling. It's pretty damned funny, in fact.

No explanation is proffered about what all these dead fish mean. Were they killed by the same thing that caused the octopus to go on a rampage? Were they killed by the octopus? In any case, why hasn't the octopus eaten them, and why does he need to climb out of his element to hunt people when he has an abundant source of nutrition right at home?

Though he remains stubbornly silent on the meaning of the dead fish, Gleason does come up with a theory about the as-yet-unidentified killer beast. He thinks that Trojan Inc.'s underwater seismometers were somehow tuned to a frequency beyond that allowed by law. Before you write me and complain, let me assure you I have no idea what that means either. Anyway, Gleason supposes that the illegal broadcasts irritated some enormous deep-water life form, who then abandoned his normal habitat for the shallow waters of the shore.

There are lots of things wrong with this theory. First of all, how big a tunnel was Trojan building if they're using deep sea seismometers off the Pacific Ocean? Were they building a highway to Hawaii? Next, even if there might be a reason to have seismometers using some "illegal frequency"... how would an octopus respond to it? Even if it could detect this "frequency", its most likely response would be... to leave. Octopodes are smart, remember, and also shy by nature: if something encroaches on their habitat, and they can't find a way around it, they relocate somewhere more comfortable. It's highly unlikely that an octopus would leave its territory for a much less convenient location, when it has other vast areas of the Pacific to choose from.

But for now, let's just accept the argument that the octopus has been driven insane by the seismometers. That brings us to our next question: why is the octopus killing people? Ned Turner is the one who solves that particular puzzle. Going over the facts of the deaths and disappearances, he realizes that all the victims were within a few hundred feet of a radio when the attacks occurred3.

Yeah. Right.

But do you hear what I hear? Do you hear what I hear?
My radio is telling me,
    My radio is telling me,
        My radio is telling me to kill...

-- Boris the Sprinkler

Even assuming the octopus could "hear" the "illegal frequencies" of the seismometers: how has it suddenly become attuned to normal radio waves? Through its fillings? Lord knows I sometimes get into a homicidal rage when I hear what's on the radio, but that's different: our octopus gets vicious when he hears any radio, not just awful boy-bands and techno.

Thinking of "picking up the wrong vibes", remember Vicky? She had a terrible premonition about her husband going to sea. Well, her husband came back fine, but in the meantime, her sister and two friends have fallen victim to the octopus. One of the friends is an enormous fat guy, so we know well in advance that he's going to end up bait; what we could hardly have guessed was that his demise is preceded by not one, but two annoying false scares. Vicky's sister then has the goofiest scene in the movie: she looks out on the water, just in time to see... a pair of legs pop straight up and go scooting by!

Assonitis' foot fetish comes to the fore once again.

Sure, we realize that a live human being is unlikely to move through the water like this, but still... like the scene with the dead fish Gleason finds under the water, it just doesn't carry the shock Assonitis thought it would. It's a mistake, but it's a carefully considered mistake, rather than the... oh, you get the idea by now. Shortly afterwards, the octopus tears off the ship's transom in an attack that might just remaind you of another famous attack... though how it tears off the transom when it attacks from the bow I really can't tell:

It attacks from one direction......and causes damage on the other. Hmmm.

And so Vicky's Christmas card list grows slightly shorter.

But let's go back for a moment to Vicky's staggeringly misguided instincts. After her friends have been lost, Vicky goes off on a boat with two men to try to find out what's happened. This is not a Coast Guard boat; in fact I really don't know whose boat it is, or what she's doing on it. You'd figure with her "premonitions", she'd want to stay safe on dry land, especially after the weird stories her husband's brought back from his dive.

But no: she's off without her husband, on a boat with two metaphorically red-shirted ensigns, in the dead of night. She's doomed. Poor Delia Boccardo... as she gets closer and closer to her character's inevitable death, the camera makes her look more and more glamorous, as though to make up for the indignity she's about to suffer. Sure enough, Vicky's rescue boat finds the remains of her sister's craft, in the open ocean in total darkness, where evidently the Coast Guard couldn't during the day. One of the expendable crewmen goes for a quick look at the disabled craft, and we expect another Jaws reference... I don't know whether it's because we've already had the pop-up corpse gag, or because Assonitis wanted to play with our memories and expectations, but in any case, the crewman finds nothing and gets back alive.

It's after the crew has set a lighted buoy to mark the wreck and started heading for home that things go bad. Now, at no point in the action so far has anyone gone near a radio, so I think we're supposed to realize that the buoy is a radio beacon, putting out a distress call. This would explain some of the later action as well. The alternative explanation is that this octopus has a personal grudge against Vicky Gleason, which makes no sense at all. Anyway, the grief-stricken Vicky looks up from the deck of the rescue boat and sees something enormous churning through the water toward her. She screams! It burbles! Someone splashes water on a model boat! Two obvious mannequins dressed like the crewmen are washed away! The horror.

Vicky finds herself floating alone, as she watches something drag the boat under the water. Terrified, she swims back to the only refuge she can think of: her sister's wrecked vessel. Where the radio buoy is. The resulting scene is probably the high point of the movie, as the mad cephalopod stalks his prey. The rotating red light at the top of the buoy adds to the atmosphere of the scene, even if it occasionally illuminates the screen in the back of the studio tank on which the octopus' attack is projected:

To attack like this, the octopus would have to be almost completely out of the water.The close-up creature effects aren't bad in this scene.
'Tag! You're et.'

It may have taken hours for anyone to find the remains of a boat that disappeared in broad daylight, but it takes no time at all for word to reach shore that Vicky is dead. This only makes sense if, as I've speculated before, the buoy they left by the wreck was a radio beacon, and if a boat responding to the beacon found some icky Vicky bits here and there. None of this is ever explained, though: we just see Bo Hopkins slumped by the seashore, attempting to emote, while a surprisingly large crowd gathers at the dock.

The continuing deaths and the attendant publicity begins to unnerve Whitehead. It turns out that the decision to use the questionable seismometers was Corey's: not only did he use them without telling Whitehead, but he also obtained opinions from the company's experts that the equipment would cause no harm. This makes the roles of the "Evil Capitalists" far more interesting and realistic than similar roles in other films of this sort. It's almost a shame that these characters' entire involvement in the film takes up a mere four minutes of screen time.

While all this has been going on, Ned's sister has been very busy signing up her son Tommy and his best friend, Jamie Dougherty, for the big regatta. Remember the regatta? Well, Mrs. Dougherty doesn't have time to take her own son, so the two boys go with -- what the hell is Shelley Winters' character's name anyway? -- her. Yeah. Anyway, it should come as little surprise to anyone that Tommy and Jamie just love to play with radios -- possibly a reference to the then-current CB craze in the U.S. -- and that they intend to leave one radio with Tommy's mom so they can talk to her during the regatta. They couldn't be more clearly marked for disaster if they were taking a cute little kitten along with them, or had promised to win the regatta for a little girl in the hospital who's dying of leukemia.

Turner, Robards and the grieving Gleason are sitting around dejectedly, trying to decide on a course of action, when Mrs. Dougherty (Jamie's mom) stops by. She's been looking for Ned; now that she's free to head off to the boat race, she's wondering if Ned wants to come, too.

NED: "My God! The regatta!"

(Ned and the Sheriff don't actually smack their foreheads when they hear this, so we're spared the massive, hollow BONNNNG that would result.)

Remember in Jaws how the Mayor and the town council didn't want to close the beaches, because of the negative impact to the town's economy? It became one of the most common tropes of the post-Jaws disaster movie: "We can't {close|stop|postpone|relocate} the {insert event or landmark here}; think of the economy!" became the refrain of countless Powers-That-Be. Well, Tentacoli doesn't follow the pattern. In fact, once the alarm goes out, Solana Beach calls in the Coast Guard, whose attempt at a solution involves flying enormous helicopters within a few feet of the tiny sailboats, while a Guardsmen holds up a chalkboard reading "DANGER: GO BACK". Brilliant.

But in spite of Solana Beach's willingness to sacrifice everything, including public safety, in the name of public safety, we still have a problem: First of all, the Sheriff, who's supposed to be looking out for public safety, has completely forgotten the town's big high-profile summer event. Perhaps he's still recovering from the news that the Fourth of July fell on July 4th this year. Then we have the crusading "investigative journalist" Ned Turner, who somehow managed to forget the regatta that his own nephew is participating in... who forgot even to tell his sister (who lives with him) about the giant undersea menace he's been looking for. Our heros are morons.

But of course, it's too late, so because of Tommy's and Jamie's radio, the regatta gets eaten. Let me stress here that this is all Ned Turner's fault. If he'd told his sister anything at all about his brilliant deductions, or if he'd cared about her or her son enough to keep their well-being in mind even for a moment, there's a strong likelihood that the regatta would never have been attacked.

The actual attack is supposed to be the movie's Big Moment, but again, Assonitis' decisions leave the viewers scratching their heads. We intercut between shots of the kids in their Lasers and the grownups on shore (who are being "entertained" by a clown in an Uncle Sam suit); this is supposed to play up the irony of the situation, with the kids headed into mortal danger while their parents sit ashore and laugh. Whatever the intention, in execution the Big Moment leaves a lot to be desired: for some reason, the editing in this sequence goes totally berserk, using still-shots and freeze-frames during what should be the most active part of the movie. We also get to see way too much of the octopus, steaming along with its head out of the water, looking like a particularly goofy cartoon character.

As a result of the clumsy editing, we don't get a very good idea how many kids get eaten. We see a lot of boats capsizing, and once we even see a boy disappear under the water almost as though he'd been grabbed by something. But what little action there is is so confused that we really don't know what's going on. In any case, the only potential victims that matter to us are the two we've been introduced to: Tommy and Jamie... and naturally, theirs is the last boat to be attacked by the beast.

Now, I may have this wrong, because the editing is still terribly confusing at this point... and I really don't want to go back and look at the scene again and again... but it seems as though Tommy falls overboard, while Jamie (the younger child) continues to sail away. Yet the octopus apparently ignores the floundering Tommy, and instead goes for Jamie in the boat. Somehow, the octopus manages to pull the Laser straight down under the water!

This all leads to the terribly exploitative scene in which the Coast Guard deposits the surviving children back at the dock. Ned, his sister and Mrs. Dougherty stand by the vessel as Robards helps the children down; Tommy, naturally, is the last child off the boat; he suddenly pops into sight as the last group of children climbs onto the dock. Mrs. Dougherty looks around desperately -- is there anyone else? The Sheriff shakes his head sadly. Ned (ahem -- whose fault this all is...) attempts to console the sobbing woman, while Shelley Winters does a fairly good job portraying a woman torn between grief over her friend's loss and joy that her own son has been spared. I, in the meantime, want to vomit, and here's why:

You can't trivialize the deaths of children. Yet that's exactly what's going on here. We've had it suggested that the octopus has made a meal of the kids in the regatta, yet this scene asks us to believe that only one parent has been affected by the loss. And which parent, and which child, has been singled out for this distinction? The non-character Doughertys: the only thing we know about Jamie is that he needs to pee a lot, and his Mother is only along for the ride so she can stand teary-eyed at the dock after her son is killed. These two exist only to be tortured for our amusement. Just compare this with the treatment of the Kintners in Jaws, and you'll see what a lazy, thoughtless and cowardly way Assonitis chose to get a reaction out of the viewers!

At this point, all the major characters except for Bo/Gleason have served their purpose. We will be seeing no more of them.

V. So Long, Suckers
Gleason decides there's only one way to deal with a giant killer octopus, and that is to sic his two trained orcas on it. He borrows the Oceanographic Institute's really cool yacht and tows the whales out in a huge tank. Though you'd think this was a fairly important project, there are only two people involved: Gleason and his assistant... and from the languid looks Gleason keeps throwing at his manly young helper, it seems as though his wife's death has changed him in many, many ways.

The octopus once again shows he's the smartest character in the movie: while Gleason and his assistant are lounging around on the yacht, it shows up and smashes the whale cage. This leads to a howlingly inept shot: the octopus is supposed to attack the boat and send its occupants tumbling from gunwale to gunwale. The effect is done "Star Trek" style: the actors jump about from side to side, while objects get pulled past them on strings and the camera shakes. Unfortunately, as the crew and the contents of the cabin go spilling in one direction, the camera tilts in the opposite direction... and we watch in disbelief as everything falls up. You can easily imagine this sort of thing happening as a result of a missed cue... in any event, no matter whose fault it was that the shot was wrecked, Assonitis and his editor deserve most of the blame for the end result: the footage should never have been included in the finished movie.

The best actor in the bunch......and excepting Delia Boccardo, the best-looking.

For all the octopus's efforts, though, the whales escape unharmed. This sets the stage for the Big Confrontation: Gleason and his assistant dive in an attempt to find the creature's lair, but it spots them first. The octopus starts a slow-motion underwater avalanche that traps Gleason's helper and smashes his air tank. Gleason works feverishly to free him, while sharing his aerator. But before the octopus can devour the humans, it's the orcas to the rescue!

Cipriani's music for this scene is, if anything, even more ridiculous than the inappropriate lounge music that's come before. It's tuneful, all right, and it sticks in your head -- I found that I remembered it perfectly after nearly 20 years, the only detail of the movie that remained after all that time. It's just... wrong. It sounds like it was lifted from an unfinished spaghetti Western, with a wordless male chorus and everything; it's completely out-of-place with the music that's come before. It's also repeated over and over again, not a good gesture in a movie whose headache factor is pretty high to begin with.

Throughout the movie, we've been given glimpses of a real, normal size octopus wriggling about on scaled-down props. Now we get to watch as two orca-shaped hand puppets tear the (now-deceased) octopus to tiny bits. It's at this point I think the movie hits its low point: I don't consider the actual dismemberment of any animal "entertainment", and the thought that Assonitis and his crew killed and mangled the most convincing performer in the entire film is more than I can tolerate. The attack is also very badly shot... which is a blessing in some respects. Still, the photography clears up when we're forced to watch a severed tentacle drift away, or as we see the poor dead cephalopod sink forever into the depths (just like the movie).

Certain sushi I will never eat again, after seeing this.

And so Gleason and his, um, partner sail off into the sunset. But what's this? Can it be? Yes, it is: mismatched footage of the two whales in their tank, which is meant to suggest that they've followed Gleason's boat! Aww! How cute. And so they sail off together, ready for adventure (or at least a Saturday morning cartoon series); fighting crime and killer octopodes wherever they go.

Perhaps in the sequel they'd have got a talking monkey sidekick.

VI. Alternative Tentacles
But of course, for reasons that should be obvious by now, there was no sequel. At least no direct sequel. Though alert readers and viewers may have caught on to certain disturbing things about this film and its possible impact on future Jaws riffs. Can you think of another movie from the late 70's that's got an underwater menace... and an Evil Capitalist... and a Spring-Loaded Corpse where we expect the monster... and an attack on a flotilla of teens? Plus the never-quite-stated hint that this beastie has a grudge against one character in particular? Hmmm?

Anyone? Anyone? Jabootu?

Yeah, it's scary to think an "official" Jaws sequel would have more in common with this movie than with its predecessor. Or perhaps I'm hallucinating.

(Though I'm certainly not hallucinating when I consider the resemblance between Tentacoli and Peter "Jaws" Benchley's Beast. Benchley has made quite a career in character assassinations of large sea predators, so it's not surprising that he'd turn to the killer cephalopod sub-subgenre. I suppose when a writer rips off his own work, it isn't strictly plagiarism... though it is amusing to see the man who created Jaws come up with a book and a mini-series as resolutely awful as any cheap knock-off.

Beast isn't about an octopus. Instead, it's about the mysterious Giant Squid, architeuthis dux, which comes surging out of the depths and develops an unusual taste for straw men. The novel's only interesting features are 1.) it has a hero named "Whip Darling", and can justify said fact; 2.) that it manages to combine "the Quint" with "the Evil Capitalist"; and 3.) that it arranges the meet-cute for the single hero, and then brutally kills the ingenue. Otherwise, it's drivel, as Benchley tries to play both the "man-is-perverting-nature" card and the "my-god-the-animal-is-pure-EEEEEEvil" card at the same time. It doesn't work. But it's sure familiar, though, as we find our usual assortment of flensed victims, an Evil Capitalist [who's even more Evil, at least by attribution, in the series], and a last-minute balaena ex machina.)

And while we're thinking of successors to Tentacoli, we should point out that Tentacoli doesn't even have the distinction of being the worst film that John Huston and Shelley Winters made for Ovidio Assonitis. The same year, Assonitis produced another film with his two leads: Stridulum, aka The Visitor. In this film, a bizarre mish-mash of Close Encounters, The Omen and (of all things) Exorcist II, Huston plays a visitor from space who pretends to be a Polish tourist (though he can't even pronounce his own name). He's really investigating a secret society which plans to take over the world by using genetically engineered evil alien children. To help his investigation, he grows bald men in a box. Winters, meanwhile, plays the most ridiculously demeaning nanny since Eulabelle in Horror of Party Beach, looking like a reject from a Disney musical while singing "Shortnin' Bread" all around the house. The movie comes to a climax with a literal battle between hawks and doves -- or rather, several hundred pigeons painted white. Along for the ride are Lance Henriksen, Glenn Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and Franco Nero in a brief cameo as Jesus Christ.

So is there any real reason to watch Tentacoli? Other than as fodder for a B-Masters' Roundtable?

Well, if you're really in the mood for a good Killer Octopus movie... Tentacoli is definitely not it. You're better off watching the Ray Harryhausen spectacular from the late 1950's: It Came from Beneath the Sea ("We can't close the Pacific shipping lanes! Think of the economy!"). Actually, come to think of it, that movie was no masterpiece either... but compared to Tentacoli, it's certainly solid entertainment. Plus, the animated octopus puts the beast in Tentacoli to shame: it's large enough to destroy the Golden Gate Bridge! It could beat the octopus from Assonitis' film with two tentacles tied behind its back (or, in the event, not even attached for budgetary reasons). And since it's only a model, we don't mind as much when it's blown to bits at the end.

On the other hand, if you're looking for an amusingly awful high-camp experience in the best MST3K style... well, again, Tentacoli probably isn't the movie for you. It has its overtly ridiculous moments, as well as more than its share of distasteful ones; but in general it's just mediocre.

The underwater photography and the pacing of the diving scenes are really quite good, all things considered. With the exception of certain embarassments noted above, the photography in general is competent. Though it's far from perfect, the technical quality of Tentacoli may come as a surprise to anyone who's had to suffer through the panned and scanned versions of the movie that appeared on American television or on U.S. video releases. Then again, that's just about everybody: most people outside Italy haven't had the chance to see Tentacoli the way it was shot. It seems that the further the movie got from Italy, the less of it you really saw: the German widescreen video release was letterboxed at an aspect ratio of 1.77:1, reduced from an original ratio of 2.35:1. The Italian DVD includes a German trailer, which is also incorrectly framed, so perhaps the European theatrical release was also cropped. And, of course, in the U.S. it's been most widely seen full-frame on TV and video, meaning about half the picture information has been missing. This means that most viewers in the U.S. have been denied the full impact of Shelley Winters' awful hat.

Shelley Winters and her big ugly hat, take two.

Which brings me to my final point: if you're in the United States, and you're so misguided as to actually want to see this movie in spite of everything I've just said, then your options are pretty limited. You can go out and buy one of the cheap MGM videos off eBay... though you'll be missing out on the widescreen photography, which -- unexceptional though it is -- is still the best part of the flick. Don't expect the movie to come out on American DVD any time soon, for reasons ranging from general lack of public interest to the above-mentioned animal dismemberment. There are (were) two German DVD pressings, but one appears to be fullscreen and the other is framed incorrectly; neither has an English track, and though they sell cheaply, I defy you to find a place that will ship one for less than a fortune.

This leaves the Italian DVD, and here you may have better luck. Except for the missing English track, Italy's Pulp Video has done a good job with the film. Copies have even been sighted at Luminous Film and Video Wurks, so you don't have to worry about currency conversion or international shipping. You'll have to bear in mind that the DVD, while Region free, is still recorded in the PAL system. That means it will play on a computer DVD player, or on most portables, but if you want to play it on an American TV, you'll need either a PAL-to-NTSC converter, or a DVD player that does the conversion automatically.

But why bother? There have been two recent direct-to-cable releases (called, imaginatively enough, Octopus and Octopus 2) that should satisfy your cravings with far less trouble. Or, best of all, you could just go watch Jaws again. It's a better film, the DVD is cheaper, and you won't need an Italian dictionary and a bottle of aspirin to get through it. And as you watch the inspiration for dreck like Tentacoli, ask yourself why, when film makers went to imitate Spielberg's movie, they copied the "killer beast" aspect of the film, but forgot entirely about the "good movie" part.

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1. Like the word "octopus", the word "cephalopod" comes from Greek; it means "head foot", a particularly apt description in light of what we now know about their nervous systems.

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2. Claude Akins as a sheriff -- who ever would have thought?? Though I feel it's my duty to point out that he didn't play his most famous "Sheriff" role, Sheriff Lobo in BJ and the Bear, until the year after Tentacoli.

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3. The way I understand it, seismometers use sound waves, not radio waves. Sound waves might well drive an octopus into behaving uncharacteristically, since they do apparently use their sense of hearing to locate prey. But this still doesn't explain why certain radios attract the creature's attention, considering the radio waves are everywhere, and that the radios themselves are just receptors.

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