When Jaws ushered in the modern monster movie era in 1975, moviegoers everywhere became terrified to go into the water. Jaws was so effective that it spawned a bevy of aquatic imitators, each more strange that the last. For several years after Jaws, audiences were treated to thinly veiled rip-offs like Orca in 1977, Piranha in 1978, and Alligator in 1980. Perhaps the most far-fetched, and therefore the most fun, of these water-logged creature-features is the Samuel Z. Arkoff 1977 killer octopus presentation known as Tentacles.
Tentacles is set in a seaside town appropriately called Ocean Beach. The story begins with a series of disappearances of people near the coast, ranging from experienced divers to infant children. The mystery is deepened when the corpse of one of the missing divers turns up with its marrow sucked right out of its bones. Scientist Dr. Ned Turner (John Huston from Chinatown and Casino Royale) is on the scene, and is stumped about what kind of creature has the power and strength to ravage a body like that. He consults with a colleague, Will Gleason (American Graffiti’s Bo Hopkins), who determines that the culprit is an octopus, but not just any octopus: a giant, mutant octopus. The ecologically minded scientists suspect Mr. Whitehead (Henry Fonda from 12 Angry Men and On Golden Pond) and his company, Trojan Construction, of polluting the water, resulting in the mutated specimen. The question shifts from what is attacking the coast to how can it be stopped. Turner and Gleason have to come up with a plan before the big Solana Beach boat regatta, an event that will fill the water with potential victims, takes place.
Although he’s in the credits under his pseudonym, Oliver Hellman, Tentacles was directed by the legendary schlock producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (Beyond the Door). The script, written by Tito Carpi (Last Cannibal World), Jerome Max (“Ryan’s Hope”) and Steven R. Carabatsos (“Peyton Place”), is highly derivative of other monster and disaster movies of the time, but Assonitis puts a cheesy, b-movie spin on the story. The situations are improbable and the dialogue is forced (including some very awkward speeches by Will Gleason that are directed towards his killer whales), but Assonitis makes it work by giving Tentacles one of the most amazing monsters in cinematic history. The octopus is half real octopus footage, half rubber monster effects, and all awesomeness.
As corny and campy as it comes off, Tentacles does have some truly chilling moments. Towards the beginning of the film, a mother is distracted from playing with her infant child by a passing friend. When she returns to the child, the stroller is in the water and the child is gone. The impact of the scene hooks the viewer immediately. The film goes on to provide some effective scares, most notably when the octopus is attacking boats full of helpless people, but the shot of the stroller in the water is the one that haunts viewers of Tentacles for the rest of the film…and beyond.
Tentacles came about around the same time as Irwin Allen’s star-studded disaster movies, so it’s little surprise that Assonitis assembled a high-profile American cast. In addition to Huston, Hopkins, and Fonda, Tentacles also features Shelley Winters (The Poseidon Adventure) as Tillie, Ned’s sister, as well as television western character actor Claude Akins (just before he was to become Sheriff Lobo on “B.J. and the Bear”) as the local sheriff, Sheriff Robards. The seventies seemed like a decade where stars were tripping over each other to slum around in borderline bad movies, and the cast in Tentacles goes a long way towards proving that theory.
Even though it’s primarily thought of as an Italian film, Tentacles’ external scenes were mostly shot in America: Southern California to be precise. Viewers who are familiar with the San Diego area will recognize Oceanside, Shelter Island, Point Loma and the La Jolla Cove among the locations (although, curiously, the real Ocean Beach and Solana Beach are not used). The aquarium scenes were shot at the now-defunct Marineland of the Pacific in Palos Verdes, CA. The sunny locales and all-star cast combined with the resumes of the writing team make Tentacles feel like a seventies T.V. movie, albeit one with bite.
In addition to the cast and locations, the music is another aspect of Tentacles that makes the production feel dated, but in a good way. The score, written by S.W. Cipriani (Piranha II: The Spawning, The Great Alligator), is non-stop seventies fun. The up-tempo, bass and horn driven grooves that serve as music beds fall somewhere between disco and cop show theme. And, like any good movie monster, the octopus has his own music motif that announces his presence – although it’s a corny harpsichord flourish instead of a menacing cello a la Jaws, but in the context of Tentacles, the silliness works.
The beach tourism industry must have taken a huge hit in the years after Jaws; every year a new movie with a different crazy animal was released, sparking new fears in audiences. Although Tentacles probably didn’t keep anyone out of the water, it is still a fun creature feature that is well worth the time and energy to see.