The Octopus In Cinema

Excerpt from Richard Ellis' book, Monsters of the Sea (shared with permission)

The Octopus in Cinema
By Richard Ellis


[The following is excerpted from Monsters of the Sea, by Richard Ellis. Reproduced with permission of the author.]

The killer octopus made its first cinema appearance in 1916.

Three years earlier, Charles Williamson had designed and built a "salvage machine" that consisted of a flexible tube hung from the keel of a barge with an observation ball fitted with glass viewing ports and mechanical arms. His son, John Ernest Williamson, envisioned other possibilities, descended in the "photoscope" with a press camera, and took the first underwater photographs ever recorded in America. (The first underwater camera was built in France by Louis Boutan in 1899, and one of his first pictures was of himself.) After making some still shots, John Williamson decided to become an underwater moviemaker. In the Bahamas, he shot all sorts of fishes, then filmed a battle between a man and a shark. The film - in which Williamson himself fought and killed a shark - was the centerpiece of The Williamson Submarine Expedition, which kept people coming to a Broadway movie house for almost a year. His next project was Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (VHS).

In the Bahamas (where forty years later Walt Disney would film the same story), Williamson obtained a ship to use for the USS Abraham Lincoln (which he blew up for the film), but because the navy's submarines were otherwise engaged, he had to build his own out of wood. He filmed Verne's "undersea gardens" - inhabited by several threatening tiger sharks - and outfitted the divers in hard-hat diving suits that adhered to Verne's description by using equipment that required no air hoses. Although the Nautilus is attacked by a giant squid in the novel, Williamson substituted an octopus, which attacks a diver instead of the submarine. When Nemo sees the diver in trouble, he quickly dons his diving apparatus, descends on the submarine's retractable ladder, and confronts the monster. From his own book, Twenty Years Under the Sea, John Williamson narrates the encounter:

Into the field of vision came the grotesque figure of the helmeted diver, the gallant Captain Nemo. How slowly, how very deliberately he seemed to move. Moments dragged in tense suspense. Now he was beside the native who was struggling in the clutches of the squirming python-like tentacle. A flash of his broad-bladed axe - the tentacle fell -- and the struggling native shot to the surface, gasping for breath but saved!

According to Williamson, people believed the encounter was genuine. He quotes a review from the Philadelphia Public Ledger that said: "The struggle between the monstrous cephalopod and the pearl diver, ending in the latter's rescue by the captain, is one of the rarities of the camera. There can be no question of fake or deception. It is all there, and our vision tells us it is all true." It was, in fact, one of the first "special effects" in movie history, and the only part that was "true" was the diver. Williamson had designed a giant octopus made of canvas with halved rubber balls sewn onto the arms to represent suckers. The tentacles were spring-loaded contraptions inflated with rubber tubing that could be activated by bursts of compressed air to give them the appearance of life. The octopus machine (which Williamson patented) was controlled by a diver inside the head, and the inventor felt very proud indeed of the lifelike appearance of his octopus. He wrote: "To one who did not know its inner secrets, viewing it in action was indeed a hair-raising experience. John Barrymore himself told me that in all his career on the stage and screen he had never been so thrilled, so absolutely frozen - rooted to the spot - as when he watched my octopus scenes.

In 1954, Roger Corman, the master of cheap, successful movies, had heard about an electrically powered, one-man submarine and approached the manufacturers with a proposal to use it in a film in exchange for a screen credit. They agreed, and Corman promptly wrote It Stalked the Ocean Floor, a story about a man-eating mutant created as a result of atomic testing. Shot in Southern California for $12,000, the film - whose title was eventually changed to The Monster From the Ocean Floor (DVD; VHS) - included a blinking, one-eyed octopus, which Corman described as "a puppet shot from behind a cloudy fishtank," and a marine biologist who saves the pretty tourist by driving his sub into the monster's only eye. Although the film made money and launched Corman on his extraordinary career (his 1990 autobiography is entitled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime), it was less than a critical success. The reviewer Leonard Maltin described it as "a dreadful film about a squid-like creature pursued by a mini-submarine; 20,000 yawns under the sea."

From the time the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, the possibility of radioactivity creating mutant monsters became an important ingredient in monster movies. For It Came from Beneath the Sea, a film that was made only a year after The Monster from the Ocean Floor, Ray Harryhausen designed the octopus of the title. The film is an unintentionally hilarious tale of a giant radioactive octopus that emerges from the Marianas Trench because it has decided to change its diet, from fish to men and ships. It attacks a nuclear submarine, but the intrepid commander Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey) manages to break out of the grasp of the monster, which leaves a sample of its tissue in the bow thrusters. It takes the scientists two weeks to determine what sort of animal might leave a section of an arm with suckers, but they eventually decide it is indeed a monster octopus. (In explaining the identity of the monster to high-ranking naval officers, the scientists show them a real octopus, which makes what follows all the more ludicrous.) It looks like an octopus, but it moves like a rubberized robot. The monster comes ashore in Oregon, where it grabs a couple out of a car, then heads for San Francisco, where it inexplicably attacks the Golden Gate Bridge. Screaming crowds run through the streets as giant tentacles pursue them, and finally the army arrives with flamethrowers. They drive the beast back into the sea (but not before it pulls a hunk of the bridge down). Commander Matthews fires a special torpedo into it, and it explodes, but the lucky commander, who had gone into the water to harpoon it with a grenade, is not harmed by the gigantic underwater explosion. In fact, he is in such good shape that he succeeds in winning Dr. Leslie Joyce (Faith Domergue) right out of the arms of another scientist, proving that square-jawed determination beats brains (and giant octopuses) every time.

Jules Verne's Mysterious Island (VHS) was a sequel to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and was mostly about survival under primitive conditions, a la Robinson Crusoe. As written, it contains no underwater activities, and with the exception of a dugong, no threatening sea monsters, but the critical success of the giant squid sequences in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea obviously meant that some sort of threatening cephalopod had to be included in the movie sequel. Made in 1961, the film bears only a passing resemblance to the book that inspired it and probably owes more to the success of the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than it does to Jules Verne's novel. Captain Nemo (now played by Herbert Lom) appears, although his submarine remains moored in a cave throughout the movie. Mysterious Island is the story of some Union army prisoners who escape in a balloon, which blows out to sea and lands on an island in the middle of the Pacific (having blown all the way from Richmond, Virginia), where they encounter all sorts of bizarre monsters, including a giant crab, bees the size of Volkswagens, and an enormous, crazy-looking bird that looks like a cross between a giant chicken and a kangaroo.

On a mission to raise a sunken ship, the prisoners, outfitted with Nemo's revised underwater breathing apparatus in the form of a giant shell strapped to their backs and another shell on their heads with a face mask in it, encounter a many-armed monster. As designed by Ray Harryhausen, it is a strange, cat-eyed creature that lives in a coiled, ribbed shell, like a giant hermit crab. Harryhausen invented "Dynamation," a technique of combining stop-action photography with live action that gives the "octopus" a herky-jerky movement, but after all, it would be almost impossible for any creature other than a real octopus to duplicate the sinuous motion of its arms. Although one of the prisoners is snagged by the beast, another is armed with a ray gun and zaps it so that it releases the predictable cloud of ink and then frees the prisoner. All's well that ends well in Mysterious Island, which could not be said for It Came From Beneath the Sea, in which any number of people were killed, a freighter was pulled under with all hands, and the Golden Gate Bridge was destroyed.

In 1977, only two years after Jaws (DVD) appeared, a movie called Tentacles (VHS) hit the screen. Obviously intending to capitalize on the shark mania of the moment, a group of Italian filmmakers managed to convince Henry Fonda, John Huston, Shelley Winters, Claude Akins, and Bo Hopkins to appear in this mess. (Unlike It Came from Beneath the Sea, which is so bad that it is funny, Tentacles is so clumsily made that it is truly offensive.) As in Jaws, various people are picked off by an unknown creature, but there the resemblance ends. Tentacles is a witless hodge-podge of jiggling cameras, befuddled editing, missed (and occasionally dubbed) lines, and utter plotlessness. The story - what little there is of it - has something to do with the use of "illegal" high-frequency sounds that entice some sort of sea creature to go on a rampage, so we see people yanked under water or simply disappearing, that being easier and cheaper than trying to make an octopus. Every once in a while there is a murky shot of a real octopus in a tank, accompanied by ghastly tweeting noises, but otherwise, the monster never appears. After gobbling up assorted members of the cast, the octopus decides to attack a sailboat race, so audiences see lots of boats capsizing and frightened looks on the faces of various little boys, but you never actually see what is doing the attacking. (Which is probably just as well, since the John Huston character asks if the range of a giant squid can be greater than thirty miles and someone else says that "the suckers on the tentacles are like the claws of a tiger.")

Bo Hopkins plays a sort of whale trainer, so he decides to take his captive killer whales to attack the monster in its lair, at which point the octopus promptly destroys the floating tank in which the whales were transported. Hopkins and his trusty sidekick leap into the water to confront the beast, only to discover that the killer whales are alive and well, after all, so while the two divers struggle with an underwater avalanche (obviously caused by the octopus), the whales attack the giant octopus. The whales squeak like mice, the octopus wheezes like Darth Vader, and one can only feel sorry for the real octopus that had to appear in the "battle" scenes, since someone was poking the poor creature with a stick that had a killer whale's face painted on the end. When the monster is vanquished, the two heroes, having lost their wives, friends, boats, and assorted acquaintances, sail off to Africa, giggling as they head into the sunset.

If 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the ultimate giant squid movie, Warlords of Atlantis is the ultimate giant octopus movie. Shot in Malta and Pinewood Studios, England, this 1978 film is about a band of Victorian explorers - equipped with a bathysphere - who end up in Atlantis, an underwater but dry city, populated by elite aliens who seem to have arrived from Mars. (The unlikely queen of the Atlnteans is Cyd Charisse, whose outfit is cut so as to reveal her shapely legs.) Before the octopus appears, however, a sea monster (identified as "a living placoderm," a name that actually denotes a class of long-extinct armored fishes) pokes its head up through the open-bottomed bathysphere, but the hero (Doug McClure) pokes it with a live electrical wire and kills it. 1hc occupants of the bathysphere find a giant gold statue, which they send back up to the ship. This arouses the crew members, who plan to do away with the scientists and steal the statue, but it also causes the giant octopus to come to the surface. The octopus attacks the ship, grabs the crew members in its tentacles, and as the luckless aquanauts watch through the porthole of the bathysphere, descends with its victims into its cave. Our hero manages to maneuver the bathysphere up through a whirlpool, and as they surface, they see the previously captured (and presumed drowned, if not eaten) crew members alive on the beach. They are all captured by the Atlanteans (some of whom are fish-human mutations with bullet heads), and before their eventual escape, our heroes encounter several more dinosaur-like monsters. The story of their adventures - which include references to a master race and an invasion of Earth by extraterrestrials - is better suited to a discussion of the myth of Atlantis in popular culture, but at the finale of this movie, when the men bob up to the surface and reboard their ship (where the gold statue still remains), they are in for a little cephalopod surprise. Although we are never told why, the octopus is highly proprietary about the statue, and as soon as the crew reassembles on board ship, the monster returns. It now appears to be really angry, for it not only grabs the crew members again, but this time it also wields the statue like a club to smash up the ship. With its grasping tentacles everywhere - down the hatches, up the masts, in the portholes - the octopus succeeds in sinking the ship, but the good guys escape in a convenient lifeboat that was knocked overboard in the melee.

As cinematic model octopuses go, this is a pretty good specimen. The first time we see it, it is swimming past the bathysphere, with its writhing arms spread wide, but when it surfaces, its head looks surprisingly real. The attack, with the arms squirming down the stairwells and in through the portholes to grab the sailors, is a bad version of a similar scene in the Disney 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but not nearly as well done, since the wires employed to move the arms are often clearly visible. We see the octopus's wrinkled, mottled head, and sometimes its staring yellow eye, which has a correctly horizontal pupil. When the makers of Warlords of Atlantis wanted a monster that could inspire terror in the eyes of men, seek vengeance for stolen property, and grab several sailors at the same time as it smashes up a ship with a golden idol, which one did they choose? The giant octopus, of course.
[The preceeding was excerpted from Monsters of the Sea, by Richard Ellis. Reproduced with permission of the author.]
Published:
Feb 22, 2015
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