Okay, tell me if this sounds familiar.
There’s a beachside resort town, one whose survival is pretty much dependent upon tourists and big business. If you give the tourists a reason to not show up, the town dies. If you give big business a reason to build their factories and their underground tunnels somewhere else, the town dies.
Unfortunately, something bad is happening in this little town. People are going in the water and they’re never returning. It appears that they’re being killed by some sort of giant sea monster, even though the authorities swear that it’s simply impossible. The town’s leaders are putting pressure on the sheriff to cover up the crimes. A scientist shows up and thinks that everyone he meets is an idiot.
It’s not safe to go in the water but people keep doing it!
Now, you may be thinking that it sounds like I’m describing the plot of Jaws but actually, I’m talking about an Italian film called Tentacles. Released in 1977, Tentacles was one of the many films that was directly inspired by the success of Spielberg’s film. Jaws was such a phenomenal success that it was ripped off by filmmakers across the world. That said, of all the people ripping off Spielberg’s film, the Italians brought an undeniable and frequently shameless flair to the Jaws knockoffs.
Tentacles is a bit different from other Italian Jaws films in that, this time, the threat does not come from a shark. Instead, it comes from a giant octopus! That’s actually a pretty good twist because, in real life, an octopus is actually more dangerous than a shark. Not only are they bigger and considerably smarter than most sharks but if they get enough of their eight arms around you, they can literally squeeze you to death! I mean …. agck! Say what you will about sharks, I imagine getting eaten by one would suck but at least it wouldn’t take long to die. Whereas if an octopus gets you, you would actually be aware of it squeezing you to death and oh my God, I’m never getting in the water.
Anyway, in Tentacles, the octopus is snatching babies off of piers and sailors off of boats and it’s using its octopus powers to rip their skin from their bones. It also attack scuba divers by firing ink at them. The sheriff (Claude Akins) says that it’s nothing to worry about but Ned Turner (John Huston), a hard-boiled reporter, thinks that there’s a story here. Ned’s in town visiting his sister (Shelley Winters). She has a ten year-old son who enjoys sailing. Uh-oh….
Henry Fonda shows up for a few very brief scenes, playing the head of a company that built the underwater tunnel that somehow mutated the octopus. Fonda looks incredibly frail in his scenes (and apparently, he filmed his part while recovering from heart surgery) but his performance in Tentacles still isn’t as cringe-inducing as his performance in The Swarm. (Fonda, like many of the great Golden Age actors, spent a lot of the 70s appearing in films solely for the money.)
Also showing up is a marine biologist named Will Gleason (Bo Hokpkins). Fortunately, Gleason owns two killer whales so, after the octopus kills his wife, Gleason sends out the orcas to track it down. Before doing so, he gives them a pep talk. Apparently, killer whales respond to positive reinforcement. And let’s be honest. You may be tempted to laugh at the shots of Gleason talking to the whales and begging them for their help. The fact that Gleason’s monologue is punctuated with flashbacks to Gleason performing with the whales at various water parks adds to the potential campiness. But, in the end, you’ll love those whales just as much as Gleason does.
Tentacles is an odd film. It’s a fairly blatant Jaws rip-off that features a few American stars who were looking for a quick paycheck. Most of the supporting cast is Italian and poorly dubbed. It’s one of those films that it is tempting to dismiss out-of-hand but, on repeat viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the filmmaking a bit more. A scene where the killer Octopus attacks a children’s boat race is actually beautifully done, with shots of the boats slowly sinking into the water mixed with shots of the blissfully unaware parents just a few feet away. Director Ovidio G. Assonitis may have been making a Jaws rip-off but he still brings enough of his own vision to the film to allow Tentacles to stand on its own.
In the end, you’ll never forget that octopus.