Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Tentacles
While the rush of copycats in the wake of Star Wars fuels many a cheesy movie, the 1977 sci-fi film was not the first instance of the entire international film industry shifting its priorities to capitalize on an epochal change in moviegoing. It happened two years earlier with the release of Jaws and the beginning of the blockbuster era. Nowadays, it might be hard to appreciate how big a shift Jaws really was — right down to the fact “blockbuster” originally referred to the lines of people “around the block” to see Jaws and not the monumental amount of money it costs to make an Avengers or a Star Wars. But just like Star Wars, Jaws generated a lot of imitators in the years between the two releases.
Thanks to Steven Spielberg’s breakout success, we have Grizzly, Orca the Killer Whale, the unreleased (and yet still infamous) Grizzly 2: The Concert, Day of the Animals and many, many more. Some of these may be future weekend cheesy movies, but it is doubtful any of them have the polish or star power of this weekend’s film, Tentacles.
The plot concerns experiments conducted by Trojan Construction along the coast line of Southern California. For reasons never clearly defined, they are boring a tunnel near Solana Beach and using high frequency radio as part of the dig. The radio waves awaken a GIANT OCTOPUS from its ancient slumber and it begins a series of attacks whenever its senses are assaulted by the power of radio. There are characters in the film, of course, like legendary director/writer/actor John Huston as newspaper man Ned Turner. The great Shelley Winters appears in some scenes as his sister Tillie. AAMCO spokesman Claude Akins occasionally wanders into scenes as Sheriff Robards. Also, Henry Fonda literally phones in a performance from his fabulous Los Angeles home.
And if it sounds like the cast is a little less than committed to the material, that’s part of the charm. Directed by Italian schlock maestro Ovido G. Assonitis (who also directed The Exorcist rip-off Beyond the Door and later became CEO of The Cannon Group), Tentacles is often a collection of scenes in which great actors stumble around a horrifying truth: they’re in a Jaws knock-off.
But for as much as the performances seem a little under-baked, Assonitis’s direction often leaves you wondering if any of these characters are meant to be the focus. At first, it seems as through Ned, who notices a string of unexplained deaths near his home, is the main character. Then we meet Will Gleason (Bo Hopkins), a marine diver turned killer whale trainer after a close encounter with the Bends. He actually has a little bit of backstory, so he should be the main character, but he disappears for great swathes of the film as it shift gears to kill off characters we meet for a few seconds before they are enveloped by the octopus. Even Fonda’s “special appearance” as Trojan owner Mr. Whitehead suggests he will get involved more directly should he ever finds his car keys. And then, magically, all of these characters disappear in the final reel so Gleason can hunt the octopus with another character we meet for maybe 10 seconds early in the film.
If you’re a student of screenwriting, take the time to examine this film in contrast to Jaws. It’s fascinating to see how Tentacles mimics it — with kids getting attacked while in a sailboat, a young child murdered by the sea creature early in the runtime, and even a beleaguered local sheriff doing his best against an unprecedented scenario — and still not see how characters like Brody, Hooper, Quint and even Mayor Vaughn breathe life into the film’s universe. Or how they compel the audience to care when the main trio decide to hunt the shark in the open water. In comparison, Gleason’s hunt is largely dead air, even when he explains why he named his trained Orcas Winter and Summer. Since we never get to know him, or any of the characters, there is no investment in seeing the octopus defeated.
At the same time, the film gives you something amazing and unexpected every few minutes. There are terrible and obvious model boats during some of the octopus attacks. A portly gentleman is introduced just so another character can point out his large gut. He also tries to be some sort of Mexican stereotype, but the Italian actor clearly has no idea what a modern Mexican is like. The octopus subsequently eats both men, the woman accompanying them, and the boat they floated in on. Later, Assonitis shoots a sailboat race with a great deal of care and expense, only to turn it into a half-complete massacre scene as he clearly ran of out cash to do gore effects. Instead, all but one of the racers returns to shore without a scratch. Winters appears to be tipsy in all of her scenes, which seems to be less of an acting choice and more of a coping mechanism.
Her child in the film also makes some shocking digs about her weight.
Meanwhile, the film features a great — if occasionally inappropriate — score from Stelvio Cipriani. The main theme was recycled from his work on 1973’s The Great Kidnapping and would be featured again in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. The epic sweep of the final battle theme feels better suited for a sword and sandal flick, but gives the repeated shots of Orca puppets attacking a dying octopus more gravitas.
And like the score, the film features a handful of really great shots. A brief underwater shot of the squid attacking the tourist boat just about pulls off conveying the size of the creature. In fact, much of the underwater footage looks great. Back on land, a later scene in which Gleason learns about his wife’s death employs a very long crane shot away from the bay and toward a park bench where the camera finds the character. It’s a little showy, and Cirpiani’s music is a little overdramatic, but it is well executed.
Which is the overall feeling of Tentacles. It features a number of technical achievements, but they’re in service to a script which shows little understanding of the blockbuster it is ripping off. The cheese emerges from both cynicism inherent in all Jaws knock-offs and the strange naivete on display. Additionally, there are some laugh-out-loud moments thanks to bad special effects, Huston’s acting choices and Fonda’s complete disengagement in all of his scenes. Also, it was shot on location in Solana Beach and various other spots near San Diego; giving it an authenticity one usually does not find in an Italian knock-off. Nonetheless, it is still a Jaws knock-off, a special sort of cheese we may encounter more often in the months ahead.
Tentacles is available for rent on Amazon Prime. It is also available as a Scream Factory Blu-ray with Reptilicus.