Saturday, October 10, 2009


Solid production values, Nestore Ungaro’s exemplary underwater photography, a name-dropping cast of vintage Hollywood stars, and a terrific fight between an octopus and two killers whales makes “Beyond the Door” director Ovidio G. Assonitis’s “Jaws” horror movie rip-off “Tentacles” (**1/2 out of ****) worth watching about a giant squid terrorizing a coastal American town. This octopus doesn’t discriminate when it comes to his diet. You can be an infant, an adult with a peg leg, a beautiful bikini clad dame, or an entire yacht itself and the eponymous predator will dine on you. Incidentally, though we don’t get to see the octopus that often, the octopus looks believable, not like the octopus in the Ed Wood classic “Bride of the Monster” (1955) that Bela Lugosi flailed around with in a hilarious scene. The octopus was clearly phony just as it was clear Lugosi was making all of its moves for the octopus. Additionally, this octopus looks better than the “Twenty-Thousand Leagues under the Sea” octopus. Happily, “Tentacles” isn’t laughable and Assonitis and company maintain a straight-faced, serious attitude toward these shenanigans and refrain from camping up the plot.

Sadly, the chief flaw in the screenplay by a quartet of scribes--Steven Carabatsos, Tito Carpi, Jerome Max, and Sonia Molteni--for this atmospheric creature feature is the shortage of sympathetic characters. Most of the suspense is undermined because only one of the stars winds up in jeopardy. Assonitis tastefully handles the death of an infant before he moves along with the usual victims of seagoing predators. Nevertheless, any movie that opens with an infant in a baby carriage serving as the initial snack for a gigantic squid cannot be one-hundred percent bad. Indeed, Assonitis and his scenarists do a splendid job of setting up the storyline, better than Spielberg did with “Jaws.” Underwater construction and the use of radio in the resort town of Solana Beach is what prompted the squid to prey on humanity and once it has had a taste of blood, it cannot assuage its appetite. The stalking scenes from the octopus’ perspective forge a sense of unease and eventually the sight of the squid traveling on top of the water like a submarine is kind of creepy. In fact, this “Jaws” rip-off anticipates “Jaws 2” by endangering a fleet of young boaters during a regatta. Unlike “Jaws,” “Tentacles” provides a reason for the appearance of the cannibal octopus.

After a baby in a carriage and a peg-legged sailor vanish in the ocean in separate incidents, Sheriff Robards (Claude Akins of “Return of the Seven”) and newspaper reporter Ned Turner (John Huston of “The Deserter”) investigate their disappearance. The bodies for the most part have been reduced to skeletons. A horribly decayed corpse washes up out of the drink at one point to scare a couple necking on a boat, but the rest of the victims have had their flesh peeling from their bones and the marrow sucked out of them. Sheriff Robards warns Turner not to sensationalize the story until they obtain more information. Perceptively, Turner observes that it all adds up to a nightmare.

Meanwhile, Mr. Whitehead, President of Trojan Construction (Henry Fonda of “The Grapes of Wrath”) reminds Turner to not draw hasty conclusions unless he can furnish the facts to back them up. Turner believes that Whitehead’s company and their underwater construction are to blame. Of course, Turner is right, but he doesn’t get an opportunity to bask in his beliefs. Whitehead discovers that overzealous engineer John Corey (Cesare Danova of CBS-TV’s “Garrison’s Guerrillas”) in an effort to accelerate the construction violated regulations. Whitehead orders Corey to stop his illegal activities in this California beachfront community.

Turner goes out of town to consult with Will Gleason (Bo Hopkins of “The Wild Bunch”) who is a scuba diver and marine biologist. Gleason informs Turner that the tentacles of an octopus are worse than the claws of a tiger. He has trained two killer Orcas and sends two underwater experts to the town to investigate for him. The giant squid attacks them when they go down to check out the ocean floor. Eventually, Gleason arrives in town with his wife to conduct the investigation himself. The day that he is not on his yacht, the octopus attacks the yacht and sinks it. In the middle of all this mayhem the squid eats Gleason’s wife. Gleason brings in his two whales. The last half-hour of “Tentacles” depicts the struggle between Gleason and his two Orcas with the huge octopus. Watching the Orcas tangle with the squid is like watching angry dogs tear into a bear. During the fight, the octopus touches off an underwater avalanche and Gleason is trapped.

Assonitis has made a better-than-average octopus opus, but the film lacks the general air of terror and enough scary scenes to make it a goose-bump inducing horror chiller. Largely, Assonitis’s claim to fame is his screamer “Beyond the Door.” “Beyond the Door” was an “Exorcist” style, satanic possession thriller that coined $40-million internationally while scaring up $10-million in the United States. Fonda confines himself to his house, while the Huston character and the Winters’ character are brother and sister. The major set-piece that “Jaws 2” appropriated, but on a smaller scale, is the regatta. “The Stranger Returns” composer Stelvio Cipriani employs a harpsichord for suspense in his imaginative orchestral soundtrack.