“Tentacles” is a cheap “Jaws” rip-off about a giant octopus. It was made at a time when everybody was trying to think of which giant sea creatures other than sharks could theoretically terrify moviegoers. It is not a good movie. But it’s hard to call it a complete failure when the first two octopus victims are a peg-legged sea captain and a baby. You win extra points for that sort of thing.
The film was made by an Italian production company with a mix of American and European actors, and though it’s set in California, I can’t find a definitive answer on whether it was shot there or in Italy. A few of the minor roles were definitely played by Italians; you can spot them either because their voices have been dubbed or because they speak with comically thick Italian accents. Perhaps self-conscious about this geographical ambiguity, at one point the movie features a parade led by a man dressed as Uncle Sam. [Italian accent] See?? America! The movie, she is from America! [end Italian accent]
At any rate, there’s a bunch of famous actors totally slumming here, probably because it was the middle of the 1970s and everybody was on drugs. John Huston gets top billing as Ned Turner, an ancient semi-retired journalist who sits around the seaside town of Solana Beach looking for news. He lives with his sister, Tillie, played by Shelley Winters, who drinks at breakfast, has been through multiple husbands, and has a 10-year-old son. (Fun fact: Winters was 56 at the time.) Ned spends his mornings in a full-length nightgown which, coupled with his wizened, craggy features, renders him positively Gandalfian in appearance. (Fun fact: John Huston was the voice of Gandalf in the animated version of “Lord of the Rings” that came out this same year.)
Ned Turner’s curiosity is aroused when he hears that a couple of bodies have turned up in the water, cause of death unknown. Unknown to him and the other characters, that is. We, the viewers, know they were killed by a creature of some kind, and though we have not yet seen any part of the actual creature, we’re pretty sure it’s something with tentacles, what with the movie being called “Tentacles” and all. That narrows it down to an octopus, a squid, or a Cthulhu.
Ned Turner — who is wearing clothes now, not his housedress — starts popping up all over town, uninvited, butting into other people’s scenes and demanding answers, much to the annoyance of Sheriff Robards (played by Claude Akins). There’s some suspicion that Trojan Construction, which is digging an underwater tunnel for some reason, might have played a part in the deaths, but that suspicion doesn’t go very far because it doesn’t make any sense. It does, however, allow the movie to trot out Henry Fonda as the president of Trojan, a heartless industrialist who is named Mr. Whitehead but unfortunately never pops. The filmmakers convinced Henry Fonda to be in something like three scenes, and they want to get their money’s worth, even though that subplot serves no purpose
Meanwhile, the country’s foremost marine expert, Will Gleason (Bo Hopkins), has been called in to investigate. Will Gleason is well-known and well-respected at the local Sea World-y place because of his knowledge of, and borderline creepy affinity for, killer whales. He knows the two orcas who perform in shows here very well, and seems to think he can communicate with them. Killer whales are his best friends. He has a wife, too, but whatever. Will Gleason sends two divers down to check out what Trojan Construction is up to, whereupon the divers get sprayed with ink and devoured by the tentacled menace, which the movie is still being very careful not to show us. The movie spent all its money on Henry Fonda, John Huston, and Shelley Winters, and only had enough left over for one regular-size octopus, which it must use sparingly, because of octopus union regulations.
The movie has now eased into everyone’s favorite section of a movie like this, the section in which a series of random people get killed by the monster. First up is a super-fat guy with an enlarged Italian accent that the movie tries to convince us is Mexican! He and his non-fat, non-Italian buddy get attacked in the same scene, and their lady friend back on the boat knows that something is wrong when the non-fat guy’s legs pop up out of the water. They stick straight up, too, which is weird in its own way. Not only is there a giant sea creature on the loose, there is also a disruption in the properties of buoyancy and water displacement!
But what about drunken Shelley Winters? She’s busy wearing a hilarious giant hat and enrolling her son and his friend in the junior regatta! Then she has lunch and drinks some more and brags to her son about what a great sailor she is. It is possible that Shelley Winters was not entirely aware of what the film was about, or that she was even in it. When the regatta begins, it is immediately interrupted by a giant octopus that knocks over all the boats and eats some of the kids, as is the duty of a giant octopus. Nobody knows this is happening, though, because the race is on the open sea, out of view from the shore, which is a completely sensible location for a children’s event. Drunken Shelley Winters, still drunken but now wearing a more appropriate hat, figures out something is wrong when her son stops responding to the sailing instructions she’s been screaming at him through a walkie-talkie. She figures he couldn’t have just thrown the walkie-talkie into the ocean so that he wouldn’t have to put up with her micro-managing his life anymore; there must have been a giant octopus attack. (She happens to be right in this case, but her reasoning is still flawed.)
The boy survives, unfortunately, and must continue to live with drunken Shelley Winters as his grandmother-aged mother. But noted marine expert and orca whisperer Will Gleason has had it up to HERE with these melon-farming octopi in his melon-farming ocean. His plan is to tell his orca friends to swim down to the octopus’ lair and kill it. In exchange for completing this task, the orcas will be freed from their servitude at the Sea World-y place. Will Gleason’s human friend, who isn’t allowed to have a name, thinks this plan won’t work — not because Will Gleason won’t succeed in conveying his instructions to the killer whales in a way they can understand, but because the octopus will surely be smart enough not to return to its lair. “All octopi, large or small, have a sense of foresight,” say the nameless human friend. This echoes what every schoolchild learns about marine life: dolphins are mammals; sharks have three rows of teeth; octopi can predict the future; starfish are made out of stars; whales are racist; etc.
But this particular octopus proves to be pretty stupid in the foresight department, returning to his lair in time to be at home when Will Gleason’s hit-orcas arrive. Now the movie brings out the big guns, using a toy killer whale to fight with a regular octopus and letting us figure out for ourselves what’s going on. The octopus is vanquished, don’t ask me how, and the orcas are so happy to have been of service that they keep hanging around Will Gleason and his friend afterward, perhaps eager to receive a new assignment to murder something. In the meantime, John Huston and Henry Fonda have completely disappeared from the movie (not that I blame them), and the surprise twist ending is that it turns out Will Gleason was our main character all along. After skimping on the tentacles and offering far too much of John Huston in a housedress and Shelley Winters in various hats, the movie finds one last way to disappoint us.