Monday, May 22, 2017

"Disturbed by Man's Stupidity" - Tentacles (1977)

We return to the sea again to discuss the excellent Tentacles (1977), a film set in the communities surrounding San Diego, California. Like The Visitor (1979), this film unites John Huston and Shelley Winters in an Ovidio Assonitis production.

Also like The Visitor, Tentacles is occasionally maligned by the critics. For example, Brandt Sponseller on IMDB writes, “Unfortunately, almost everything about the film is completely incompetent….The script is horrible and at times completely incoherent. It may also set a record for the largest number of abandoned threads. The director appears to have slept through most of the shoots.” Also on IMDB, Uriah43 writes, “Perhaps it was the bad camera angles, the incoherent script or the awful ending but it all seemed like a complete mess.” Finally, adriangr writes, “This film is bland, unsuspenseful and uninvolving….I'm sorry to say it, but this movie is not worth your time, because there is never really anything to see.”

Needless to say, these critics have missed the proverbial boat. I must, as usual, correct their misconceptions and describe the true glory of Tentacles.

The film begins with the camera inside a taxi in San Diego as it drives along the shoreline.

It then cuts suddenly to a mother and baby sitting on the grass near the beach. The camera's point of view moves through the water and up the rocks, toward the mother and baby. In a horrifyingly suspenseful scene, the mother abandons the baby in his stroller, strolls across the street, and talks to a friend of hers.

Even more shockingly, the friend asks about the baby, "How's the little fatso?"

A school bus passes on the street. When the bus has passed, we see that the stroller and the baby are gone!

When the mother realizes her mistake, she runs back to the beach. She sees the stroller floating in a surprisingly seaworthy manner.

"Billy!" she cries. (Note: We do not see the mother or the baby again.)

The film moves on to its next nautical incident. A man resembling Quint from Jaws is cleaning his sailboat, which sits on a launch ramp leading into the bay. His assistant wanders off to eat lunch, then hears several loud explosions. When the assistant returns to the ramp, he sees the boat has been launched and the Quint lookalike has vanished.

We soon see, however, the man's body pop up out of the water.

San Diego's southern sheriff Claude Akins discusses the condition of the body with reporter John Huston. The sheriff tells the reporter not to play up the mysterious aspects of the death or the skeletal state of the body.

"In my opinion," John Huston says, "we're in for a nightmare."

John Huston returns home, where he lives with his promiscuous sister Shelley Winters. Wearing his striped nightgown, Mr. Huston discusses his love life with Ms. Winters, who wears a striped bathrobe. They are interrupted by her 9-year-old son.

Meanwhile, corporate giant Henry Fonda is annoyed to discover that Mr. Huston is writing negative stories about the safety record of his construction company, Trojan Tunnels, though Mr. Fonda does not know if the stories are true or not.

"Must be something monstrous out there," Mr. Huston says to Sheriff Claude Akins at the medical examination of the corpse. "Monstrous and...infernal."

It seems the likely hypothesis is that construction of an underwater tunnel is causing deaths in the bay.

Mr. Huston visits the foremost marine expert in the country, Bo Hopkins, who is training an orca at Sea World. (Interesting trivia: Bo Hopkins is not Bo Svenson.) In his inimitable southern accent, Mr. Hopkins says, "These killer whales may unlock some of the biggest mysteries of the sea we don't even know about yet."

Tragically, Mr. Hopkins's character is unable to dive in the water anymore because he recently came up too quickly and got the bends.

In the bay, two divers are sent down to the bottom in a bathysphere. They swim out of the vehicle into the bay. In a harrowing sequence, they swim for several minutes until they reach some damaged equipment on the rocky floor. Suspense grows as they trace cables along the sea floor.

Then they see some rocks falling near a cave. Armed with harpoon guns, they swim to the cave, inside of which we see flashes of tentacles.

The sight of a tentacle is so shocking that one man loses his breathing apparatus. He gapes open-mouthed as ink covers him.

The other diver swims for his life but the tentacles chase him. He reaches the bathysphere and uses the telephone to tell the ship above to raise him to the surface.

After a few moments, however, the winch stops and the diver in the bathysphere looks out the porthole. He is face to face with a giant white eye.

Later, Shelley Winters enters her son Tommy and his friend Jamie in a boat race. The filmmakers reveal more about her character through the use of a giant sombrero (i.e., she is a woman who enjoys giant sombreros).

The boat race will be held on the open sea, but Shelley Winters has no compunctions about allowing her son and his little friend to race their own sailboats by themselves. They will have walkie talkies with them.

By means of detection skills to which the audience is not privy, John Huston and Claude Akins deduce that the mysterious deaths were all near radios.

More undersea divers take their time in a mini sub and discover a) barrels of what appears to be toxic waste, and b) dozens of fish standing nose-down on the sea floor.


In an exciting sequence, Bo Hopkins's wife's sister and her friends get lost at sea and go swimming. One of them, a large man with an intermittent Mexican accent, floats by himself away from the boat. He is startled not once but twice by his younger friend, but the third scare is real: the owner of the titular tentacles, an octopus, grabs the man and pulls him underwater.

It is unclear at this point, due to the camera's perspective and the fact that the creature and the man are not seen together, whether the octopus is octopus-sized or larger.

We soon infer, however, that the octopus is larger than usual, as it grabs the boat and starts rocking it to and fro.

The fate of the swimmer is revealed in somewhat humorous fashion as we see his legs pointing upward and emerging from the sea.

Only now do we see the true size of the cephalopod as it attacks the boat from beneath. It is about half as large as the boat.

Like the shark in Jaws, the octopus attacks the stern of the small boat, pulling Bo Hopkins's wife's sister underwater.

Bo Hopkins, meanwhile, is preparing to dive, despite his previously mentioned experience with the bends. He further explains what is happening. "The Trojan Tunnel Company has been using high pitched frequency way the hell beyond the legal limit. Somehow, they've damaged the underwater fauna.

"I'm almost positive of that," he adds.

Further, he has deduced more details. "There's only one thing big enough and powerful enough," he says. "A giant octopus."

As the film enters its second half, Shelley Winters drives her son Tommy and his friend to the sailboat race. (Despite living a few miles from the site of the race, they will not arrive until the next morning.)

At night, Bo Hopkins's wife and a small crew find the wrecked boat on which her sister was killed. Suddenly, the water churns and their own boat is swamped. Bo Hopkins's wife swims back to the wreckage of the first boat, pursued by more churning water.

She sees the tentacles of the film's title flail around her and a red buoy, and then she is lifted unceremoniously into the air while the presumably giant octopus breathes heavily.

The film then moves on to its most poetic scene, in which a massive crowd of people gathers on a dock at the harbor, shown by a long, slow tracking shot and accompanied by a wistful woodwind solo.

The shot ends on John Huston's reporter character and Bo Hopkins's marine biologist staring dejectedly at the water. The wordless scene expertly gets the point across: Everyone is sad that people have died.

The next morning, we watch as Shelley Winters, her son, and his friend launch their sailboat for the big race. In contrast with the scene from the previous night, this sequence is scored with an upbeat, jaunty tune that makes great use of a foghorn as a musical instrument.

Ms. Winters also uses her walkie talkie liberally, reminding us that at some point previously the theory was floated that radio signals have something to do with octopus attacks.

Meanwhile at the sheriff's station, Bo Hopkins, John Huston, and Claude Akins casually discuss the giant octopus. "I've read," says Mr. Huston, "that the suckers on a tentacle are like the claws of a tiger."

Mr. Hopkins responds, "Compared to suckers on a tentacle, claws are nothing, Mr. Turner. Nothing."

They are reminded that the sailboat race is occurring today. "Would a giant squid's range be greater than 30 miles?" asks Mr. Huston. The relevance of the question when the threat is actually a giant octopus, not a squid, is not remarked upon.

"If it's gone berserk," Mr. Hopkins says eloquently, "who the hell knows?"

In a suspense sequence rivalling those in Jaws, we watch as the sailboat race commences. A Coast Guard helicopter is ordered to suspend the regatta by flying over the boats with a chalkboard. On the shore, an Uncle Sam impersonator tells jokes about drunk Scotsmen while Shelley Winters whispers into her walkie talkie. As the suspense intensifies, the director, Ovidio Assonitis, freezes the occasional frame for a slideshow effect.

In the ultimate ratcheting of suspense, we watch as the octopus glides through the water, its eyes breaking the surface, somewhat like the dorsal fin of a shark, but even more frightening because its eyes are visible.

Chaos erupts as sailboat after sailboat overturns, accompanied by the jaunty music from before. Observers on the beach clap and look on obliviously.


Tommy and Jaimie's boat is the last to be attacked. They scream, as would anyone witnessing such a sight.


The boat sinks, pulled under by tentacles. All the boats are simply wreckage in the water.


Surprisingly, however, we see two boats pulling in to the marina with all the survivors on board. The octopus merely pulled the boats under the surface. The only casualty was Ms. Winters's son's friend Jaimie.

"Thank God," says Ms. Winters.

Bo Hopkins takes a crew out to sea to search for the octopus by broadcasting orca calls into the air. As they relax over coffee and prescription drugs, his assistant explains, "It's an animal, disturbed by man's stupidity."

Mr. Hopkins talks about the two orcas he has trained, Summer and Winter. "You remember I told you a long time ago that a killer whale had a brain about as large as a human being? And they're in contact with two different worlds, one the air that they breathe, two the sea from where they came, from where they feed, from where the enemy is at. And enemy."

He reveals that he has towed the orcas in a large tank with him to sea. "I need your help, now more than ever," he tells the two orcas in a stirring pep talk. "You have more love in your heart, more affection than any human being I've ever met. I'm asking you to help me...kill this octopus."

He ends his inspirational speech with, "I know people think we're crazy. Maybe we are. Maybe we are."

After the boat is attacked and the whale tank is damaged so the orcas are set free, Bo Hopkins and his assistant don their scuba gear and search for the octopus.

The octopus ambushes Bo Hopkins from above, but like Han Solo, the orcas come to his rescue. In an exciting action sequence that is only a little difficult to make out due to fuzzy underwater photography and quick cuts, the orcas defeat the octopus, which falls to the bottom of the ocean.

In the denouement, Mr. Hopkins sails off with his assistant, only to be followed by his friends Summer and Winter.

Two years before their collaboration on the masterpiece The Visitor (1979), filmed in Atlanta and Italy, Ovidio Assonitis teamed up with John Huston and Shelley Winters to film Tentacles in San Diego and Italy. Both films were produced by Assonitis; he directed Tentacles but Giulio Paradisi directed The Visitor. Tentacles is more grounded than The Visitor (but no less exciting and frightening), perhaps due to the excellent script credited to Jerome Max, Tito Carpi, and Steven W. Carabatsos (script editor and writer on several episodes of the original Star Trek series).

While many people compare Tentacles to Jaws (1975), some even stooping to the ridiculous accusation that Tentacles is a Jaws rip-off, there are many differences between the two films. For one thing, the killer in Jaws is a shark while the killer in Tentacles is in fact a very large octopus. For another thing, the monster in Jaws is not set off by bridge-building equipment employed by an ambiguously evil corporation. And finally, the shark in Jaws is not defeated by friendly orcas given a pep talk by Bo Hopkins. Clearly, the films are like night and day, hardly even similar except, admittedly, for the presence of large amounts of water.

Like many excellent films, Tentacles focuses on the human relationships among its characters, but it also leaves the audience wanting more. For example, the brother-sister relationship of John Huston and Shelley Winters, so well established in their first scene together, remains mostly unexplored. Perhaps a sequel could have reunited Huston and Winters (both, coincidentally, two-time Oscar winners), possibly placing them in a different situation. Fighting aliens, for example, or building a railroad in Alaska. The possibilities are endless, but any scenario would have to include the two of them in a nightgown and a bathrobe. Such is the stuff of cinematic paradise...