Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tentacles (1976) review


John Huston (Ned Turner), Shelley Winters (Tillie Turner), Bo Hopkins (Will Gleason), Henry Fonda (Mr. Whitehead), Claude Akins (Sheriff Robards), Delia Boccardo (Vicky Gleason)

Directed by Ovidio Assonitis ( as Oliver Hellman)

Summer vacationers at Solana Beach attract the attention of a gigantic octopus. Awakened from its slumber by an undersea tunnel digging operation, it begins feasting on swimmers and anyone who happens to get within arms reach of its flesh sucking tentacles. A marine biologist sets out for the open sea with two killer whales in the hopes of destroying the rampaging cephalopod.

Oliver Hellman (Rip off specialist of numerous American blockbusters) models his killer creature feature on the massive success of JAWS whose cinematic reverberations were still being felt at the time. Lots of underwater and undersea monster movies were being produced during this era. The el cheapo home made CRATER LAKE MONSTER (1977) and MONSTER (1979; starring James Mitchum!) are two examples. Others include HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980), UP FROM THE DEPTHS (1979), BARRACUDA (1978) and PIRANHA (1978) among this crowded cinematic aquarium.

Some might argue that ORCA (1977) fits into this category, but that one is, to me, closer to MOBY DICK (1956) than Spielberg's killer shark classic. A killer whale was also a plot device in JAWS 2 (1978) to show off how powerful the killer shark was in that movie. There use in Hellman's picture is instrumental to the film and their inclusion during the finale is an original idea and a creative way to end the film.

Claude Akins (left) and Oscar winning director/actor, John Huston (right) look at the results of one of the monsters victims

Aside from TENTACLES, Italy had their own share of 'Nature Amok' movies such as the star studded KILLER FISH (1978) and the Crap De La Crap that is Castellari's L'ULTIMO SQUALO (1980), which begat several more cinematic conspirators well into the 90's. There's been relatively few giant octopus movies, though. Aside from Harryhausen's magnificent killer octopi seen in IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), there hasn't been much in the way of gigantic killer cephalopod movies outside of some additional pictures from Nu Image, OCTOPUS (2000) and OCTOPUS 2 (2001).

The Italians did make one other strange movie that combined both the killer shark and killer octopus movie--Lamberto Bava's terrible DEVILFISH from 1985. The less said about it the better. It has some very nice artwork on the old VHS tape that would leave the impression that the video box houses a better movie than what's actually inside.

Attempting to make 'The Towering Inferno' of killer animal movies, Hellman crams this production slam full of extraordinarily big name Hollywood actors, but does little to nothing with them. When asked in an interview how he was able to procure such huge, award winning names, Hellman's response was, "I paid them!" You would never expect to see the likes of Henry Fonda, John Huston (the director of THE AFRICAN QUEEN), Claude Akins (he also appeared in the TV movie horror, TARANTULAS: THE DEADLY CARGO) and Shelley Winters sharing the screen together in a film such as this. While each gets a lot of screen time, there is nothing of substance involving any of their scenes. The only one who "comes alive" is Shelley Winters. None of the others really stand out. Bo Hopkins (THE WILD BUNCH) tries valiantly, but comes off as little more than an eccentric who spends far too much time amongst his two killer whales, 'Summer' and 'Winter'.

Bo Hopkins (left), John Huston (middle), Claude Akins (right)

Despite all the negativity this film receives, it does have several nicely done sequences, which, for some, will not be enough to sustain their attention during the films 100+ minute running time. The movie actually starts off strong, but loses steam bit by bit. An infant in a stroller is pulled into the sea while the mother talks with a friend across the street. We see cars passing by obscuring our view of the child. After a few cars speed by, a bus passes the screen then the toddler is gone. I thought this scene was quite well done and a nicely offensive way to start things off.

"Sharks gonna kill ya'! RRAAARRRR!!!"

An attack scene involving an overweight swimmer is both humorous and decently pulled off. The fat man is taunted several times by a friend who, in classic horror/slasher tradition, does several fake "deaths" before disappearing for real.

One of the best and scariest bits is also featured (given away?) at the outset of the films trailer wherein Delia Boccardo and two others are killed by the octopus while at sea late at night. This is most probably the best sequence out of the entire movie. Aside from some obvious miniatures, the editing aids in the gripping set up and execution. It's the most potent scene of terror in the entire movie.

If only the rest of the movie had maintained this level of suspense, it wouldn't be the barely average film that it is today. The finale where Hopkins takes to the sea with his two pet killer whales is a doozy and also well done despite its overly silly, yet wholly creative nature. The masterfully boisterous Stelvio Cipriani score cranks this sequence up several notches as the whales bite, rip and tear at the multi tentacled monstrosity that is about to make a meal of their master.

Cipriani's score is also put to good use during the so-so regatta assault (this music is also used in Paul Naschy's NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF). The scene itself is far more ambitious than the budget will allow and it only ends up being partially successful. Hellman attempts to be creative here utilizing brief freeze frame shots with the horror of the boaters being pulled underwater intercut with the people on the beach enjoying themselves. This is also mixed with shots of Winters attempting to reach her little boy on a CB radio fearing that he is in danger.

For me it's nowhere near being one of the worst of its kind as it's often referred to by fans of the subgenre. It's far more well made than similar movies such as the above mentioned BARRACUDA (1978) and the whole heartedly stupid UP FROM THE DEPTHS (1979; which is hitting DVD very soon paired with the equally mentally challenged underwater monster opus, DEMON OF PARADISE from 1987). TENTACLES (1976) may not completely suck you into the movie, but this occasionally good monster movie cult film is worth at least one look for the curiosity factor alone.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD paired with EMPIRE OF THE ANTS.

Empire of the Ants (1977) review


Robert Lansing (Dan), Joan Collins (Marilyn), John David Carson (Joe), Albert Salmi (Sheriff, Art Kincade), Jacqueline Scott (Margaret), Pamela Shoop (Coreen)

Directed by Bert I. Gordon

Disreputable real estate saleswoman, Marilyn Fryser, invites a varied group of possible investors to a new development; a secluded island getaway called Dreamland Shores. Shortly after there arrival, it is discovered that thousands of ants have grown to enormous size after feasting on drums of toxic waste dumped into the ocean and washed ashore on the island. The survivors attempt to make it to civilization alive while being eaten one by one by the marauding ants. They make it to a small town where they are about to make a frightening discovery.

Mr. B.I.G. strikes yet again in this, his last hurrah of the 1970's. The enterprising director makes it count with one of the most memorably awful, yet hilariously fun movies of the creature feature era. Gordon's double KO of rampaging Rattus norvegicus and flesh eating Formicidae make a perfect double feature of movie monster mayhem.

Note John David Carson (just behind Lansing) swinging in the opposite direction as if something were supposed to be onscreen

As with the previous years FOOD OF THE GODS, the special effects are of the macro enlarged variety featuring humans reacting to rear projection of the overgrown monsters. A handful of ant "money shots" appear to be footage of ants inside of an aquarium, or ant farm of some sort as the glass is visible. During the river sequence where the survivors try to move a tree blocking their passage, the ants attack and you can see one of the actors wildly swinging an oar at nothing! Apparently, B.I.G. forgot to insert some real ant footage in that shot, but since Lansing is in the cameras center, he probably figured nobody would notice.

Some of these shots (very few) are actually slightly effective, but lose what (very) little substance they possess during the scenes wherein totally lifeless giant ant mock ups "attack" the cast. These shots are very distinguishable as the camera shakes wildly to keep the viewer from noticing just how flimsy the "live" ant effects really are. The rat mock ups in FOTG are much more convincing. This is probably the one and only time you will ever read the word convincing being used in the same sentence with Bert I. Gordon.

To say the effects are terrible would be a serious understatement. They rival the awful wasp footage from FOOD OF THE GODS. In addition to occasional transparent optical effects, we have actors (and offscreen technicians) hopelessly manipulating the ant models to give them the appearance of motion. But the total inertia of these ants is unmistakable. I can only imagine what must have been going through the actors minds while they were filming this riotous cult favorite. The sheer audacity that AIP would give this and the more (surprisingly) successful FOOD OF THE GODS a theatrical release is a joke in itself.

The similarities between Wells' short story and B.I.G.'s movie are minor. Some of the locations are similar (a river) and the notion of intelligent ants outsmarting their human enemies is the other which is explored to a ludicrous degree during the last half of the picture.

This is where the film takes a turn towards full blown absurdity once the now dwindled band of humans make their way into a town seemingly unaffected by the ant onslaught. The last thirty minutes, as outrageous as it is, is nonetheless creative and deviates from the usual monster movie mold. Another film that is far more cerebral and much more rewarding is the 1974 movie PHASE IV. It kind of follows the trajectory laid down by Wells' short story. Ants also figured into the TV movie ANTS! (1977) aka IT HAPPENED AT LAKEWOOD MANOR. Inarguably the best killer ant film would be THEM! from 1954.

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS will always be fondly remembered by fans of no budget monster movies, even though many involved with the film would say it was best forgotten. Joan Collins has nothing but contempt for the production citing it as one of her worst experiences ever. She and the other actors had to perform their own stuntwork in the crocodile infested Florida swampland. She says this in her autobiography among other humorous highlights...

"The water was absolutely disgusting, foul green slime. It probably hadn't moved in two thousand years and it was thick and warmish. I tried to keep my head above the loathsome liquid while acting convincingly terrified. I swam as fast as possible to the sanctuary of the camera barge. Under the water my legs and feet became entangled in the submerged giant roots of a swamp plant. I thought of swamp snakes and kicked with all my might, trying to untangle my legs from this moving mass of God knows what. I crawled onto the barge like a beached whale, blood oozing from at least a dozen cuts on my legs and from the gash over my eye. I'd swallowed some of the putrid water and felt definitely ill."

Although this was her last horror movie, Collins definitely wasn't afraid of appearing in genre movies whether good, or bad. She also featured in the first story of Amicus' TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972), the mostly dull TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973), the silly devil movie I DON'T WANT TO BE BORN (released here as THE DEVIL WITHIN HER;1975) and the Italian crime film FEARLESS FUZZ (1977) where Collins got naked on several occasions.

Robert Lansing was a familiar face on dozens of television shows. I remember him mostly from his role as Gary Seven from the season three episode of the original STAR TREK, 'Assignment: Earth'. This was supposed to have been a springboard for a spin off series that never happened. His performance shows him to be a bit grumpy and a bit ashamed for having done this turkey. According to Collins' memoirs, none of the cast were happy to have participated during the November-December of '76 shoot. Lansing takes control of the movie, but at the same time, appears to not be enjoying himself at all.

The remaining five cast hot wire a car and try to escape the town. The police set a trap for them....

....which results in a nicely captured car stunt, only you can clearly see the five occupants have now been reduced to one despite overdubbed screams of women on the soundtrack.

The one area where EMPIRE is successful are the moments leading up to the ants first appearance. Here, Gordon truly doesn't falter. These scenes do generate suspense aided by the music of Dana Kaproff. The eerie sound effects, reminiscent of those heard in the far superior B/W horror science fiction classic, THEM! (1954), also add to the ambiance. Once the ant attack scenes begin, it's a fast ride down a steep hill. However, Gordon does manage to briefly pick things up a bit once the remaining characters reach the town where they encounter strange and odd behavior from some of the locals. Then, things again drop off dramatically once the preposterous final ten minutes arrive.

Joan Collins about to be indoctrinated

A mainstay of weekend horror shows such as 'Shock Theater' (which is where I first saw it), it's easily one of B.I.G.'s best remembered and most trashed movies. EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977) will never be mistaken for a truly classic monster movie. But taken as a thick hunk of American cheddar, it will surely delight lovers of good cheese.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD. EMPIRE OF THE ANTS is available either by itself, or on a double feature DVD with TENTACLES (1976).

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