After purposely avoiding it for years due to its terrible reputation, my curiosity finally got the best of me when TCM aired Tentacles (Italian title: Tentacoli, 1977) earlier in 2022, and I finally watched it from start to finish. One of several ill-conceived and pathetic attempts to cash in on the box office success of Jaws, the Italian produced Tentacles is a perversely entertaining nature run amok thriller that stands out from the other killer shark imitations like Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976) and Tintorera: Killer Shark! (1977) by substituting a more elusive title menace – a giant octopus.
What sets Tentacles’ particular brand of ineptness apart from other run of the mill Jaws ripoffs and makes it hard to stop watching is its almost abstract approach to narrative combined with a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me high profile cast that includes John Huston, Shelley Winters, Henry Fonda, Cesare Danova, Claude Akins and Bo Hopkins, who is self-taught in his own peculiar interpretation of Method Acting.
While almost everyone on the planet who has seen Tentacles and commented it on it has trashed it as boring, stupid and for masochistic completists only, I found it to be an oddly appealing train wreck of a movie, mostly due to the participation of John Huston as the world’s oldest investigative reporter, Shelley Winters as his divorced, single mom sister! and Henry Fonda as the grumpy head of a super corporation called Trojan, Inc. Fonda’s company is constructing a massive underwater tunnel that is apparently stirring up the denizens of the deep – in particular, a rarely glimpsed carnivorous octopus. Whenever Huston, Winters and Fonda are on the screen, I am immediately pulled out of the movie and find myself considering them, not as the characters they are playing, but the Hollywood legends they once were.
Why did they agree to appear in something that was so far beneath their talents like Tentacles? The easy answer is money but there must have been other reasons. A driving need to work, regardless of the quality? The chance to work with director Ovidio G. Assonitis or receive top billing in an American International Pictures release? The opportunity to work with actors they admired and liked? Maybe that was true of Huston and Winters who would go on to appear together again in another Italian mishmash, The Visitor (1979), a post-Exorcist thriller that also starred Glenn Ford, Lance Henriksen, Mel Ferrer, Sam Peckinpah and Franco Nero as Jesus!
Henry Fonda literally “phones” in his performance in Tentacles, crabbing to someone at the other end of the receiver in two of his three scenes which didn’t involve any on-screen interaction with Huston or Winters and were probably shot in one day. It’s the sort of colorless cameo that could have been played by anybody and a curious choice for Fonda who at this point in his career hadn’t really appeared yet in a low-budget exploitation film on the order of Tentacles. The big budget box office disaster about killer bees, The Swarm, would follow a year later along with such less prestigious projects as City on Fire (1979), Wanda Nevada (1979) and Meteor (1979). Yet, Fonda obviously had a great agent at the time of Tentacles because he receives the distinctive screen credit of “Special Appearance by Henry Fonda as Mr. Whitehead.” Not to be outdone, Claude Akins’ agent also secured him a special screen credit: “With Claude Akins as Robards” (the resort town’s ineffective sheriff).
But back to Huston and Winters as a barely functional brother-sister team; their scenes together are fascinatingly bad. Although the opening credits reveal that no less than four writers worked on the screenplay – Steven W. Carabatsos, Tito Carpi, Jerome Max, Sonia Molteni – it seems apparent that most of the dialogue was improvised, especially by Ms. Winters who at one point mentions that her second husband was Italian (in real life her second husband was Vittorio Gassman) and makes a running joke out of her weight. So does Huston and even her son, a terrible child actor who blurts out dialogue like a cheerful robot such as “Mommie, you’re plump. There’s more to love.” Shelley also appears to be slightly drunk in all of her scenes, particularly her first appearance when she awkwardly interrupts Huston’s typing to offer him a drink:
Winters: Whatdidja do, work all night? Didn’t mama tell you that was bad for your eyes?
Huston: And she told you to stay away from candy.
Winters (pointing to her body) What do you mean candy, little brother? This isn’t candy, it’s passion!
Huston: And whom did you seduce last night?
Winters: Frank Cannetti. You know, the bartender where Christine works? Oh, he’s so young and beautiful and so Italian.
Huston: Aren’t you ever gonna slow down?
Winters: Never. Hey, how about a Bloody Mary?
Huston: No, it’s either too late or too early – or something.
And so it goes with Huston either wandering around in his nightgown or looking rumpled in his reporter attire and Shelley accenting her blowsy character with unflattering color striped outfits and an oversized Mexican sombrero in one scene. Huston is actually rather endearing here as the sole voice of reason in a manhunt for a killer octopus and not at all how most people really think of him both on screen and off, which is probably closer to the cunning and malevolent Noah Cross of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974).
Winters, on the other hand, is already a parody of herself at this point in her career, specializing in grotesque caricatures, something that began in earnest in 1968 with her Mrs. Daphne Flatow creation in Wild in the Streets. Things would steadily go downhill from there with occasional high points (Next Stop Greenwich Village, 1976) and pop culture landmarks (The Poseidon Adventure, 1972) before Winters became completely indiscriminate in her choice of material – Poor Pretty Eddie aka Black Vengeance (1976), Fanny Hill (1983), Witchfire (1986), Purple People Eater (1988), The Silence of the Hams (1994). Tentacles starts to look pretty good compared to some of those.
Huston has made some odd acting choices over the years too despite the fact that his reputation as a great director is secure in the history of American cinema. Like Orson Welles, did he take on acting roles solely for the money or to feed his gambling addiction? How else to explain his appearance in movies like De Sade (1969), Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) in heavy ape make-up, Rene Cardona Jr.’s The Bermuda Triangle (1978) and Tentacles. Yet, of all the Hollywood veterans who participated in the latter film, the one who grabs the biggest on-screen credit is the distributor with the opening annotation “Samuel Z. Arkoff Presents.” In typical exploitation fashion, the American International Pictures mogul also provided exhibitors with a pressbook that touted real facts about the order Octopoda.
Somewhere past the midpoint of Tentacles, the Huston-Winters subplot is simply dropped after a sailboat regatta ends in disaster with Shelley’s son one of the few survivors. (Jaws 2 would actually steal this plot device the following year) The movie then morphs into something closer in tone to The Day of the Dolphin (1973) with tough city kid turned marine life specialist Bo Hopkins setting his two beloved killer whales loose on the octopus that murdered his wife (played by sexy Italian actress Delia Boccardo).
Hopkins’ character already seems slightly cuckoo when he’s first introduced and he only gets kookier as the movie races toward a peculiar anti-climax with Bo sailing off into the sunset for Africa with his hunky assistant trainer. His big scene is not the one when he first learns of his wife’s horrible death and Huston comments, “I’ve read that the suckers on a tentacle are like claws on a tiger,” oblivious to the tactlessness of his remark. Instead, Bo’s big moment is his soliloquy to the killer whales which comes off like a major mental breakdown and not the heroic pep talk it’s meant to be: “I’ve lost a loved one. I need your help more now than ever. I remember the time I was training ya, people used to call ya killers. They used to call me that on the streets. Doesn’t mean nuthin’. You have more love in your heart, more affection than any human being I ever met. [That doesn’t say much about his wife] But now I can’t ask anybody else so I’m asking you to help me kill this octopus. I hope you understand that. I know I’m in your environment. I don’t want it this way. But if I release ya and you go away, I want you to know that I understand. Alright, enough said. I gotta go now. If you feel anything, you talk to me. Make some noises. I know people think we’re crazy. Maybe we are…maybe we are.”
What follows in probably the most unexciting demise of a predator in any Jaws-like ripoff. Shot in extreme close-up where we can only see bits and pieces of the action, the two killer whales rip the octopus apart. If anything, you’ll feel sorry for the octopus which looks like it is really being harmed and probably was since this was an Italian production that didn’t have to conform to the guidelines of the ASPCA. But when all is said and done, the octopus is a very secondary character in Tentacles unlike Bruce the Shark in Jaws. Not only does it not make an appearance until the middle of the movie and even then it looks no more threatening than a specimen in the local aquarium but the first few attacks happen off camera as well. A baby is snatched out of its carriage, a peg-legged sailor is scooped up for lunch…but we never see these events. We have to use our imaginations. Maybe that’s a stroke of genius on director Olidio G. Assonitis’s part because when you get a look at the special effects octopus created for the film’s major attack sequence – the one where it wrecks a ship with a self-created tidal wave and scoops up the lovely Delia Boccardo in a tentacle – it’s delightfully tacky in the same manner of those miniature set bashing creatures from Toho Studios like Mothra and Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster. At least there is no attempt to ape John Williams’ primal music score and Stevio Cipriani’s sleazy synthesizer music cues with electric harpsichord highlights is anything but expected. To be honest, it recalls Behind the Green Door (1972) and other porno films of that era with their predominant synthesizer scores.
Yes, Tentacles doesn’t fit comfortably into the post-Jaws imitation genre or any exploitation category for that matter since it lacks any sex scenes or hardcore violence (It’s tame enough to qualify as acceptable entertainment for six-year-olds and above). But its complete failure as a thriller or even a trashy ripoff make it an appealing guilty pleasure for all of the reasons I’ve stated above and the main reason why I’d rather watch this than some recent formulaic Hollywood release at your local mall cinema. I’m not alone here and this appears to be a rising trend among moviegoers, possibly in reaction to uninspired remakes and tired formulas. How else to explain the growing cult behind such recent so-bad-they’re-good success stories as The Room or Birdemic: Shock and Terror?
Tentacles has been released on VHS and DVD over the years from different distributors but probably the best looking release is the Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in April 2022 which includes optional English subtitles so you can see and savor the terrible dialogue.
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