Monster movies are some of the oldest, most beloved horror movies. As such, monster movies have also used every sort of cinematic technology to bring their beasts to life. The mother of all monster movies itself, King Kong, has been made and remade three times in three different ways: in 1933 with stop-motion animation, in 1976 using the simple but classic man-in-a-gorilla suit, and in 2005 utilizing the latest in green-screen CG technology. Horror and sci-fi fans are especially fond of the second method, the rubber suit monster, due to the varying degrees of camp and quality and because of the sheer fun of the creature feature. In 1971, Octaman was released, updating the classic creature feature for the nineteen seventies.
Octaman stars classic monster-fighter Kerwin Mathews (Jack the Giant Killer, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) as Dr. Rick Torres, an ecologist who is investigating a polluted lake somewhere in Mexico. One of his men comes across a nest of mutant baby octopi and brings them to Rick, who in turn takes one of them to another scientist at a local university to have a look. Meanwhile, a member of Rick’s team tries to dissect another of the creatures, but is stopped when he is attacked by its father, a bigger, human-sized version of the beast. Rick, unable to convince the university to help him study the species, returns with a group of mercenary ranchers who have agreed to assist him and finds his colleague’s body. The group joins forces with a band of locals who are familiar with the mythological beast to hunt the Octaman, but the Octaman only seems interested in Rick’s girlfriend, Susan (Pier Angeli). Rick and his boys have to find a way to stop the Octaman and protect Susan before the monster strikes again.
Octaman was written and directed by Harry Essex, the genius behind the screenplays for Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space. Thin on plot, the narrative lacks the focus of Essex’s earlier works. The film is set up nicely: there’s a radioactive lake, a mutant baby monster, and a vengeful monster parent. Once it hits the second act, however, the momentum is lost and the film becomes a typical monster stalks woman feature; not only does it follow a similar plot to Creature from the Black Lagoon, but it actually references both King Kong and Beauty and the Beast. Gone is any reference to the ecological aspects of the monster and its defense of its babies, and the central image of the film becomes the monster carrying Susan away. Essex’s attempt to reclaim what he created with Creature from the Black Lagoon falls short of that lofty goal, yet accomplishes something altogether different – it’s a great campy monster movie which developed a huge cult following.
Much of Octaman’s cheesiness lands on the creature itself. The costume was designed by George Barr (who created the Penisaurus in Flesh Gordon) and built by Rick Baker (who won an Oscar for An American Werewolf in London) and Doug Beswick (who did stop-motion work on The Terminator and Aliens). The Octaman monster is not even worthy to be listed next to the other work on the resume of any of these men, but for the low-budget fun film that it’s in, it’s effective. The baby monsters look like children’s toys, albeit ones that the parents bought when they were mad at them. The adult Octaman appears to be a fugitive from This Island Earth, making no bones about being a latex rubber suit with a face that has no articulation or expression despite the fact that there’s a real actor inside (the monster is played by television western character actor Read Morgan). In the few instances where the film could actually generate scares, the screams quickly turn to laughs when the viewer gets a load of the flailing, slapping tentacles. Octaman is more camp than creep, but as far as unintentional humor goes, it can’t be beaten.
Surprisingly, the retro-alien appearance of the suit is not Octaman’s main problem; it’s that the monster is shown far too much and for too long in the film. The audience’s first glimpse of the beast comes under the opening credits, and it is only shown more from there on out. The key to a good horror film is suspense and mystery, and Octaman has little; the viewer knows exactly what’s out there right from the beginning. In the hands of a skilled editor who understands the effectiveness of a slow and partial reveal in monster movies, Octaman could be pretty frightening. As it is, it stands as a seventies update of a fifties sci-fi creature feature, and it’s good for plenty of laughs, if not for screams.
Monster movies and creature features will always hold a special place in the annals of film history. There’s a special section on the shelf for rubber suit monster movies, and Harry Essex’s Octaman should be displayed proudly within it.