The post is part of The Shelley Winters Blogathon hosted by Poppity Talks Classic Film and RealWeegieMigdet Reviews.
In the rosy box office afterglow of “Jaws”, numerous cash-ins were hastily commissioned and, just like today’s sharksploitation tv movie sub-genre, savvy producers were on the lookout for the next big beast of the deep to terrify the movie-going public. An Italian/ American co-production, “Tentacles” has much in common with fellow spaghetti sea-monster production “The Last Shark” but the difference here is the producer’s ambition in casting marquee names as a kind of production fig leaf for the paucity of the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, it seems like this tale of corporate greed provoking environmental reciprocity, was pretty much in the can before the producers decided to boost its box-office potential. Enter Hollywood legends Shelley Winters, John Huston and Henry Fonda in a literally phoned-in cameo role.
“Tentacles” opens with so many low shots of feet you’ll think you’re watching a long-lost film by Quentin Tarantino. And unlike many monster movies of the era it doesn’t waste much time in claiming its first victims as toddler billy is snatched from the shore followed swiftly by Bill the boatman, grabbed from his yacht but within the first ten minutes its so derivative of “Jaws” it borders on – and might have actually worked better as – parody.
Shelley Winters makes an instant impact from the moment she appears on the screen. In terms of character, she’s given a lot to work with. She’s the bloody-mary-for-breakfast drinking man-eater sister of John Huston’s investigative journalist and mother to Tommy, who’s looking forward to the forthcoming kids’ sailing regatta.
It’s such a meaty character set-up that you can’t wait to see how it all pays off but the problem is, it doesn’t. None of the big-name guest stars really interact with the main plot, and none of them come face to face with the headline cephalopod. She’s all too often left to react to events, often off-screen. Her introduction as an alcoholic cougar single mother doesn’t really pay off story-wise nor does her clumsily obvious early declaration that she prefers scuba diving to sailing – so if you’re expecting another “Poseidon Adventure” Hail Mary from Shelley, know that she stays firmly onshore this time. In fact, all three of the stars disappear from the film around the hour mark as the supporting cast come to the fore to deal with the actual monster mashing.
The titular tentacles make their first appearance about half an hour into the movie and the special effects aren’t too bad, at least to begin with. The film makes good use of stock footage of real octopi but as the film progresses the visuals become cheaper and shoddier as the film’s ambition overreaches its grasp and it can’t avoid the need to show the creature in all its ‘glory’.
There is some lovely maritime cinematography, albeit undermined by Stelvio Cipriani delivering a score which sounds like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop tuning up before an experimental jam session and director Oliver Hellman (Ovidio G Assonitis) even manages a few moments of real visual excellence: a spooky fish graveyard (or is it an octopus’ garden), echoed later by the sight of the children’s capsized regatta boats but he ruins it all by embracing the use of still photography with such abandon and randomness that I wondered if the streaming copy I was watching – it’s on Amazon Prime, folks – was fault. It wasn’t.
Story-wise, it’s achingly predictable even though it’s following a template that was less than two years old at this point. The child actors are dreadful but then nobody’s performance is helped by a haphazard and sloppy post-production dubbing job which leaves everyone just about in sync most of the time. It’s somewhat refreshing, I guess, that for once the authorities aren’t ever in denial over the danger posed and the drama, such as it is, comes from the increasingly desperate attempts to destroy the ravenous monster although there’s such a languid sleepiness to the whole thing, despite the terrible things happening, that you never get a sense of urgency. Remarkably, you’d think it’s archly contrived final orca v octa showdown between two recently released captive killer whales and the eponymous octopus would be a bridge too far for this meagre production but it actually works quite well, by the film’s own admittedly low standards.
Christopher Lee once said ‘Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them’ and that perfectly sums up Shelley Winters in “Tentacles”. Whenever she’s on-screen, she’s always the best thing there – sorry John Huston – and she invests her character with a life and depth the movie doesn’t deserve or know what to do with. Her efforts may be wasted by the movie but game recognises game and so, at least, her efforts are matched by the movie’s milliner who ensures that even if you aren’t drawn to her magnetic performance, your eyes won’t be able to avoid her character’s array of hats