Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tentacles (1977): Jaws vs Giant Octopus

Tentacles (1977)
dir: Ovidio G Assonitis

Italy in the 1970s and 1980s were all about churning out cheap rip-offs of American blockbusters trying to capitalize on the latest thing. When Jaws became the latest American blockbuster, filmmakers everywhere saw it and said, "We can do that, only cheaper!" In some cases, it turned out amazing, as with the Roger Corman-produced, Joe Dante-directed, and partially John Sayles-written Piranha, which is all about a summer resort town where the river has been invaded by man-eating fish. It had style, panache, and a sense of humor and pacing, all of which Jaws lacks in spades.

Then, you have Tentacles, a sort of "what was anybody thinking?" get rich quick Italian import that rips off Jaws beat for beat, but the pure insanity of the film keeps it entertaining.

Tentacles focuses on the summer resort town of Ocean Beach, where several people turned up missing in short order, and then being found in the water frequently skinned and dead. Right off the bat, you know you're in for a special movie, because Tentacles wastes no time in dispensing characters. The first victim is a baby in a stroller, who is mainly referred to as "The Little Fatso" by his mother's friend. His mother leaves him in a stroller on the edge of the cliff next to the ocean, when he disappears. The next victim is a salty sea captain with a wooden leg, who also has fat jokes aimed at him.

Then, we get to the real stars of the movie, John Huston and Shelley Winters. They play as a brother/sister pair who seems to be way too salty and quasi-incestuous. Winters is a complete alcoholic, making drinks as soon as she gets up, while Huston calls her a fat slut in so many words. Huston's main story is that he is a reporter investigating the deaths and suspects they have something to do with nearby construction work. While Winters' main job is to drunkenly take her and her neighbor's kids around town and get them entered in the sailing contest, where surely somebody will die.

I can't tell if Winters is just playing drunk or is actually soused in her scenes, which includes a general lack of volume control, and constant one-upmanship of her kids. During the first day's events, she wears the most obscenely gigantic sombrero while she forgets her kid's name, and then complains that she spends too much money on the children while downing yet another drink. By the time she tells her neighbor that the kids want to be in the race, the neighbor says she trusts Winters, and you have to wonder who in their right mind would trust their kid to an alcoholic with vodka on her breath.

Huston gets off a little better, playing the saltiest reporter to get to the bottom of the story. Along the way, he meets with business men, but also an orca trainer who really cares about his Orcas. I mean, REALLY CARES about the orcas. Like, tearjerkingly cares.

Of course, it all ends in a gigantic orca fight with a giant octopus. This being Italy in the 1970s, they didn't really care too much about animal well-being, and so it seems they ripped apart a real octopus, who may have been living when it was ripped to pieces by the orca puppets. Which may be a bit nauseating to more sensitive viewers (far more than the off-screen murder of The Little Fatso in the stroller).

If we can forgive that bit, however, there are many treasures in Tentacles to be found. The awkward dialogue. The giant sombrero. Walkie Talkies that irritate the octopus. A constant barrage of fat jokes aimed at everybody because they're fat Americans (HA HA). Corpses who float feet up. Dead fish who sink face down. It's all so ludicrous that one can't help but be entertained. Tentacles isn't a good movie, but it's a great bad movie. And, it's a much more entertaining movie than Jaws would ever be. Jaws wishes it were this interesting.

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