It Came From Beneath Some Other Movies
DIRECTED BY: OVIDIO ASSONITIS/1977
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: APRIL 12, 2022/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
One could write it off, eight times over, as just another cheap Jaws knockoff, coming as it does a couple years after that major aquatic splash, but then one wouldn’t get to enjoy the fun of actually paying attention to it. While it sometimes smells of the kind of chum you’d toss into the water to bait an audience still humming from the thrills of Spielberg’s masterpiece of character and suspense, and while it admittedly flails among the waves of inferior budget, script, acting, and special effects, it still has a kind of rough-hewn charm, like the scrawny kid brother who yaps enough to seem, if just for a few minutes, like he might have the same guts as his cooler brother, who happens to be the captain of the swim team.
The plot is a toss-back: people are going missing in a California beach-side community, and a stalwart old journalist tracks down the clues to discover a local businessman’s been pumping radio waves “beyond legal limits” into the water as part of the construction of a huge underwater tunnel system, and all of that’s been, as it happens, irritating the massive octopus that no one knew was living in the harbor. Loping about this melodrama, acting as if the studio system still had its eye on their whereabouts, are a trio of grand old-timers making good on some wayward, primordial drive to act till they die: the ever-wry John Huston is the reporter with the conscience of gold, Shelley Winters is his sister who spends the running time watching after her tween son Tommy and his best pal Jamie, both so cute and blonde that you just know they’ll be morsels soon enough, and finally Henry Fonda is the misguided tunnel-builder, with the actor’s naturally earnest integrity unintentionally releasing Big Business from ultimate guilt for the string of deaths. Rounding out the main characters are Claude Akins, in full proto-Lobo mode as the town sheriff, and Bo Hopkins, for some reason method-acting his role as orca trainer, no doubt urging them between takes to squeak with more meaning.
The movie was produced by Italian B-movie maven Ovidio Assonitis while still deeply embroiled in a lawsuit brought by Warner Bros. for hijacking the general premise of The Exorcist to make his freak-fest Beyond the Door (1974). Tentacles isn’t nearly as whacked-out as that movie, but it still retains, if you’re looking for it, and can see past the chintzy trailer shots, many examples of a filmmaker doing his own thing inside the necessary genre brackets. Showing off a dark streak, Assonitis serves up a baby as the monster’s first kill – as mom leaves the tot waterside to chat with a nearby friend, the infant gets sucked under like so much flotsam – while later a swimmer gets a death scene that’s a nearly shot-for-shot redux of the girl in the Jaws opening… only our victim is a very overweight Italian man, as if to offer a more appropriate smorgasbord for any killer beasts in the vicinity. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Assonitis mounts a fully-unnecessary, but still usefully mournful, three-minute, night-time crane shot backing away from the water to reveal a large group of onlookers on the pier, with pensive Moog to match the sombre dispatch of three poor side characters in the previous scene.
The music is by Stelvio Cipriani, whose history scoring many giallos and spaghetti westerns brings a certain specific chill and verve to the proceedings, especially giving the underwater attacks by the creature a somewhat… internationally disco-y feel that is magnificent counterpoint to John Williams’ primal two-note Jaws theme. There’s a feeling throughout that any chance Assonitis had to make it unlike its obvious forebear, he took, with an almost palpable feeling of shame when he had to dip too much into the Benchley-Spielberg well. The result is something that’s one part original emblem of a wheeler-dealer’s true showmanship, and two parts direct ripoff – not a bad ratio for something that wouldn’t exist but for the success of the original. For chutzpa, you have to hand it to the guy – eight times if you must.
Part of the fun of watching a movie like this is following characters who seem fully oblivious to the natural horrors that’ve befallen their kin in previous animal calamities like The Birds, The Swarm, Empire of the Ants, Night of the Lepus, and the like. For once it would be fun to hear a Huston or a Fonda turn to his aid and mutter, “How did they handle this in Piranha?” Or, “Maybe there’s a clue for us in Grizzly.” These movies, before and after successes like Jaws, were a cornerstone of B-movie, drive-in fare to the point of redundancy, if not perfunctory need for the bottom-feeding producers of the era, much like the simultaneous wave of disaster movies – which didn’t start with Airport in 1969, but certainly found its apotheosis there, capping early a by-gone-star-studded subgenre that swiftly bent toward a mountainside throughout the following decade. Would that the idea of combining large scale destruction with gargantuan animal threat had not been exhausted in the 1950s with Godzilla, The Beginning of the End, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and, for circle-closing elegance, It Came From Beneath the Sea. The greatest of them all, King Kong, cannot be included here, if only because it came twenty years earlier, and did not spark a film cycle, given its pure and total completion of the concept all unto itself. Tentacles – some would say unworthy to be included in the same radioactive breath as these others – and its like, all bobbing in the wake of the greats, is yet for those who connect joy to the memory of childhood awe over monsters at all, a treat on its own terms, a movie loathe to be criticized too harshly at risk of loss of movie-monster-nerd cred.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray edition comes with no commentary track to guide you through the why’s and how’s of this low-grade monster thriller, though it would have been welcome. What’s contained in this review is too-readily available online, but a deeper dive, so to speak, is desired for something so off-handedly, almost accidentally interesting, loaded as it is with big names and bigger antecedents. But there is still the movie, its charms dim but fun, if you’re into it, and a trailer and a radio spot, if that’s lure enough for you. Wade in if it floats your boat – own it if you want your boat capsized by a wobbly process shot.