Tentacles (1977)

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Tentacles
Dir. Ovidio G. Assonitis (as “Oliver Hellman”)
Premiered February 25, 1977

As I’ve said before, making an A-list Hollywood movie takes a long time; on a good day a film will take a year and a half to go from greenlight to premiere; and accordingly that’s about as long as it takes for the big studios to try cashing in on hot new trends. But what were trends in 1977? The annual highest-grossing films of the decade up to this point were a staggeringly diverse bunch: Fiddler on the Roof, The Godfather, The Sting, Blazing Saddles, Rocky? What’s the pattern there?

Then came Jaws, released in June 1975 and almost immediately the highest-grossing film of all time. And that’s how, a year and a half later like clockwork, we started getting shit like Tentacles.

Despite being considerably shorter, Tentacles copies Jaws note for note, replacing Spielberg’s iconic shark with an octopus…that acts like a shark. As you might expect, nearly every character in the original film is incompetently reproduced here. Yet it bizarrely boasts a far more prestigious cast. Instead of cop Roy Scheider, we get reporter John Huston, and his wife is Shelley Winters. For Richard Dreyfus, substitute Bo Hopkins. Instead of Murray Hamilton, the token asshole is a construction magnate played by Henry Fonda. Curiously, there is no Robert Shaw analogue, though a cocky boater dressed exactly like Jaws’ Quint gets killed at the start, because fuck you.

The film makes no attempt whatsoever to hide the cynicism that birthed it. Tentacles was an Italian production, and despite being set and filmed in Solana Beach, California (despite all promotional material calling it “Ocean Beach”), the script crowbars as many character connections and offhand references to Italy as it can, a la “I Heart Connecticut.” The writing and direction are an achievement in wasting time; padded with unnecessary exposition, endless line repetition, and characters verbalizing every thought– indeed, any thought– that comes to mind; several scenes consisting entirely of irrelevant chatter with no bearing on the characters or plot.

The line readings, too, are strange. Many of the minor roles (read: anyone who dies) are given to Italian actors and dubbed horribly into English, but even the English speakers perform with the affectlessess of rote memorization– very Samurai Cop. And not even these desperate bids for feature length can save us from long, confusing shots of nothing in particular. In an especially memorable scene, the film intercuts between video and still photographs of boats racing and Shelley Winters talking to her grandson on the radio while, apropos of nothing, an unseen comedian performs his routine; a montage intended to usher us into the most leisurely, poorly shot action climax I have ever seen.

The most obvious problem of course is that octopuses are not scary, so the film goes to insane lengths to justify its villainy. Mr. Whitehead (Fonda) is presiding over the construction of a fancy new underwater tunnel. What possible use there could be for an underwater tunnel is not specified, except to vaguely reference environmentalism and move the plot forward, mentally enraging the titular octopus with the vibrations from its construction until it lashes out at humans and develops a taste for blood.

Unexplained is how this caused the octopus to become gigantic. The film merely presents that giant octopuses exist, that they roar (fish are also shown barking), pop shark-fin-like out of the water to leer at potential victims, and are the most fearsome creatures in the ocean– until of course the tentacled foe, which previously could tear apart entire boats, is cursorily dispatched by a pair of domesticated orcas on loan from Sea World. Speaking of orcas, this wasn’t the last Jaws ripoff of 1977, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Tentacles is bad in every way a cheap cash-in could hope to be: cynical, mindless, and hateful. Add to that confusing cinematography, blatant continuity errors, 90% filler, and the worst acting Hollywood’s elite could muster, and you already have a candidate for worst film of 1977.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
It exists.

How Did It Do?
Tentacles grossed $3 million against a $750,000 budget; a technical but statistically insignificant success. It also earned an impressive-for-all-the-wrong-reasons 0% rating on RottenTomatoes. Even MGM, the studio behind Tentacles, doesn’t like it. They only released it to home video in 2004, as part of a B-movie package with Empire of the Ants, and have made no attempt to remove unlicensed copies of the film from YouTube, such as the one I saw.

Next Time: Airport ’77

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