Rip-offs. In the realm of the psychotronic, we love them and loathe them in equal measure. There are those strange and rare moments where the rip-off not only beats the original to the theatres, it out-grosses its rival and turns out to be better, to boot, as was the case with Death Race 2000 triumphing over Rollerball. At the other end of the scale, there are the innumerable “mockbusters” pumped out by The Asylum (Death Racers, The Day the Earth Stopped, Transmorphers, Snakes on a Train, and so on), which actually manage to degrade the term “rip-off” (though I have to say, the climax of Snakes on a Train, where a giant snake eats a train, remains one of the most unusual sights I’ve encountered in the last few years).
Back in the 70s, a little something called Jaws inspired innumerable imitators. Most were execrable. One, Piranha, actually managed to become its own wonderfully oddball work, thanks to the warped sense of humour of Joe Dante, John Sayles, et al. But today, let’s consider a far lesser work: the 1977 Italian exercise in cheese known as Tentacles (released a while back as a double-bill with Empire of the Ants as part of the MGM Midnite Movie series).
Jaws has its big name cast in Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss. Tentacles has its own in the form of the slumming John Huston, Shelley Winters, Bo Hopkins and Henry Fonda. Jaws has its memorable John Williams score. Tentacles has a wonderfully ominous (in a completely inane way) synthetic harpsichord riff by Stelvio Cipriani. In Jaws, the mayor won’t close the beaches. In Tentacles, nobody even thinks of postponing a regatta even after upwards of a half-dozen corpses turn up.
Let me back up a bit and give you the rest of the set-up. A monstrous octopus has been awakened and ticked off by underwater signals whose frequency exceeds the legal limit (if you’re already confused, so am I). These signals are part of the blasting process of digging an underwater tunnel (from where to where and what the hell for never being explained). First a baby, the a peg-legged old salt are dragged to their deaths, and the culprit is eventually deduced by Hopkins, a marine biologist who is apparently in direct, spoken communication with a pair of killer whales (take that, Matt Hooper!). John Huston is the newspaper reporter who links the deaths to the tunnel construction, Shelley Winters is his sister (!) whose young son (!!) is taking part in the regatta, and Henry Fonda is the president of the company who doesn’t know what his underlings are up to. Once Hopkins’ wife is munched by the octopus (in a wonderfully cracked scene where it crushes a large coast guard ship), and the regatta is decimated (an even more over-the-top scene, complete with bizarre freeze-frames), everybody but Hopkins vanishes from the plot forever so that the film might steal Jaws’ second half. So now we have the hunt for the critter, only it won’t be fought with harpoons, but with killer whales.
Yes, you read that correctly.
The music is ridiculous, the cinematography inept, and the special effects are “special” in the derogatory sense. In other words, the film is pure gold. I first saw it on TV when I was ten years old, and thought it was a truly compelling experience. Watching it again recently, I was not moved to change my evaluation. Though I was forced to redefine the word “compelling.”
For your consideration, then, a rip-off that is exactly as bad as one would expect of such things. But it is also bad in a way that lifts it beyond the realms of the terminally mediocre, and into the stratosphere of the films that entertain for all the wrong reasons. A film that is red meat for the trash connoisseur.