Monsters have been a staple of the movies almost since they began and the same rules apply to them as to any other film, so 90% of them are crap. Heck, terribleness is so endemic to the monster genre that it’s practically become a perverse selling point. The SyFy channel, back when it still spelled its own name correctly, used to proudly trumpet itself as the place for awful monster flicks with cheap CGI animation on Saturday night. It even cancelled the great Mystery Science Theater 3000 so it could have more money for crap like “Dinocroc” (2004), “Chupacabra: Dark Seas” (2005), and “S.S. Doomtrooper” (2006).
But good monster movies, or at least non-horrible ones, have inspired as much love and devotion as the best from any other genre. From the supersized kitsch of the Godzilla franchise to the real world terror of “Jaws” (1975) and the billion shark flicks that followed it to the super-hero films that currently dominate at the box office and are really just monster movies where the heroes are also monsters, these motions pictures can transport us to worlds of wonder and horror. Which is why a good monster flick is such a joy and a bad one can be so depressing.
"Here's lookin' at you, kid!"
Did I mention this movie frequently looks like a 1980s music video?
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown is going to look at the difference between a monster done right and done wrong. It’s “Tentacles” (1977) vs. “Razorback” (1984) in a contest that proves talent is a real thing and creative ambition can make all the difference.
Not to kill the suspense but “Tentacles” is awful. It’s beyond awful, in fact, and resides in some far off alternate dimension where incompetence has taken the place of gravity and cluelessness burns brighter than any star. The story of a giant octopus going on a killing spree along the coast of a seaside resort town manages to hit the superfecta of cinema suckiness. Its script seems like it was written by a gaggle of distracted 10-year-olds. It looks like it was directed by a blind man who has not only never seen a motion picture but has never even had one described to him. The special effects are “special” in the same way the Special Olympics are “special” but without any of the uplifting glory of the human spirit. And the acting in “Tentacles” should be the new Wikipedia definition of the word “tragic.”
It’s kind of hard to even describe the plot of “Tentacles” because it makes so little sense that it almost defies description. None of the characters actually do anything and if the audience wasn’t explicitly told what their professions are, viewers would have no idea what role they are supposed to be playing. The film is constantly making references to story fragments, like the octopus being stirred up by underwater construction or the relationship between an aging brother and sister or a marine biologist who “came from the streets,” but none of it ever goes anywhere or leads to anything. In the entire movie, there is only one action taken by one character that truly contributes to moving the plot forward. The rest is simply people standing around.
The direction is…oy. Virtually every scene goes on too long and is poorly staged. There are at least two times when an actor clearly forgets their line and says the wrong thing, including a mother calling her son the wrong name. Director Oliver Hellman shows a very Tarantino-esque foot fetish on occasion. “Tentacles” barely even looks like it was edited at times. In fact, the only redeeming feature of the whole production is that is serves as a reminder that while Hollywood has gotten worse at so many other aspects of storytelling, everything always looks great. Even the lowest budget indie flick will have the visual style of no worse than a B+ film school graduate. “Tentacles” is like a rocking chair whittled by someone who flunked out of carpentry class and then lost his thumbs.
The special effects consist of stock footage, octopus eyes that would have made Ed Wood laugh, and a couple of killer whale hand puppets nipping at some uncooked calamari.
As for the performances, it’s hard to say which is more striking: the checked-out-and-don’t-give-a-flip-because-he’s-there-for-the-paycheck presence of John Huston or the thoroughly embarrassed Henry Fonda. Fonda, who obviously shot his scenes completely separate from the rest of the cast, appears as though he took this job as a favor to someone and started regretting it the second he showed up on set. Shelley Winters is Shelley Winters doing her Shelley Winters 1970s shtick and Bo Hopkins acts like was on mood stabilizers for the entire production. The best acting in the film comes from a piece of wardrobe when Huston shows up on screen wearing a night shirt like he was Ebenezer Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol.” It’s such a gloriously WTF visual that it makes you wonder for the briefest instant what kind a man would wear such a thing.
On paper, there’s no reason to think “Razorback” would be any better than “Tentacles.” The plot is only a smidge better structured. An Australian grandpa sees his grandson carried off by a giant wild pig. Two years later, an American animal rights activists shows up to do a story on kangaroo slaughter and is also killed by the monstrous boar. That brings her husband Down Under to find out what happened. There are also these two Outback dirtbags who torment and harass everyone they meet, as well as a cute chick who is there to be cute.
The cast is made up of Gregory Harrison, whose career peaked as “Gonzo” Gates on “Trapper John, M.D.”, and a bunch of Aussies few outside their country have ever heard of.
The special effects consist some 1980s computer graphics that look like primitive cave paintings today and the giant boar that is hidden more in this film that Spielberg ever thought he could get away with in “Jaws.” It’s essentially a barely animatronic hog head with a furry blanket covering the rest.
But proving that one thing can make all the difference, director Russell Mulcahy does an absolutely masterful job. This is one of the more visually striking movies you’ll ever see, full of images that will linger long in your memory. Mulcahy doesn’t merely make “Razorback” look amazing, however. He takes the disparate and disconnected threads of the screenplay and weaves them together to create a genuine story. It’s not Shakespeare but the way Mulcahy stages the scenes and especially the brutally quick editing linking them together gives these characters and their conflicts more depth on the big screen than they could have possibly had in the script.
“Razorback” has one additional thing lacking in “Tentacles.” Internal logic. Even at the dawn of the 21st century with storytellers more obsessed with world-building than ever before, internal logic is something lacking in far too many movies. It’s when the things that happen in the film follow and obey consistent and understandable rules that mirror real life. For example, when the grandson disappears at the start of the movie, that’s followed by a scene of the grandfather basically on trial because authorities suspect he killed the boy. While the hearing scene provides some exposition and introduces us to the two Outback dirtbags, it’s not necessary for the plot. It could have been skipped over but keeping it creates a sense of consequences that permeates the rest of the movie.
If a boy vanished in the real world, the authorities would investigate and suspicion would fall on someone. By mimicking that scenario, “Razorback” generates a sense of reality that makes every other thing in the film feel more important and worthwhile. It’s like the subplot in “Jaws” where the town fathers pressure the police chef to keep the beaches open because those tourist dollars are economically vital. Does any that truly matter to the plot? No. You could remove it and the only impact would be the police chief looking stupid for not closing the beaches right away. But keeping it not only makes the police chief more sympathetic, it helps support the suspension of disbelief throughout the entire film and makes it all feel more real. Every time a movie doesn’t make sense and every time it insults the viewer’s intelligence, it becomes that much harder to turn off the brain and experience the film for what is it. Too many modern motion pictures replace that kind of internal logic with a barrage of physical and emotional stimuli designed to pound the audience into submission. It’s the difference between voluntarily turning your brain off and being beaten into a sort of aesthetic numbness.
This Throwdown goes to “Razorback” by as wide a margin as possible. It does feel a bit like a 1980s music video at times but that’s a good thing. “Tentacles” is a remnant of 1970s drive-in cinema that reminds us why we maybe shouldn’t entirely mourn its loss. Of course, we’ve replaced it with an online universe of cat videos and non-stop attention mongering…so perhaps a steady diet of bad movies wasn’t so bad after all.
Directed by Oliver Hellman.
Written by Jerome Max, Tito Carpi, and Steven W. Carabatsos. It took THREE people to write this disaster?
Starring John Huston, Henry Fonda, Shelley Winters, Bo Hopkins, Dalia Bocardo, Cesare Danova, Alan Boyd, Sherry Buchanan, Franco Diogene, Marc Fiorini, Helan Makela, and Claud Akins. Yes, Sheriff Lobo is in this.
Directed by Russell Mulcahy.
Written by Everett De Roche.
Starring Gregory Harrison, Arkie Whiteley, Bill Kerr, Chris Haywood, David Argue, Judy Morris, John Howard, John Ewart, Don Smith, Mervyn Drake, Redmond Phillips, Angus Malone, and Don Lane as himself. Who is Don Lane?