Face-Off: Tentacles vs. Orca

In 1820, a ship called the Essex was sunk by a massive whale, the event that inspired the writing of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick thirty years later. Director Ron Howard and a cast including Chris Hemsworth are bringing the story of the Essex to the big screen with this weekend's release of IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, and this impending event got me thinking of horror movies with aquatic themes, in particular those involving whales. There aren't many of those movies to choose from, in fact the two that instantly came to my mind were both released in 1977, cashing in on the success of JAWS two years earlier: Ovidio G. Assonitis's TENTACLES and Michael Anderson's ORCA. So while we wait to see Thor get tormented by a whale, why don't we see how a battle between these two whale-featuring horror movies turns out?
The construction of an underwater tunnel stirs up a giant octopus, which proceeds to terrorize the California coastline right in the middle of a community's yacht racing festivities. As the body count rises, the powerful suckers on the octopus's tentacles leaving its victims stripped to the bone (which it also sucks the marrow out of), the killer cephalopod makes some dangerous enemies - a pair of killer whales.
When an idiotic fisherman botches his attempt to capture a bull orca and instead causes the death of its pregnant mate, the killer whale follows him back to port and proceeds to carry a mission of vengeance, wreaking havoc on a small seaside community. With the orca displaying almost supernatural ability during its vendetta, it becomes clear that the only way to stop it is for the fisherman to face it at sea.
Assonitis landed some very highly respected actors for the lead roles in his killer octopus movie. John Huston investigates the mysterious deaths and rocks a nightgown as reporter Ned Turner, Shelley Winters is a lot of fun as his promiscuous sister Tillie, and Henry Fonda gets us through some exposition as the head of the tunnel construction company. As the film goes on, whale-training oceanographer Will Gleason, played by the super cool Bo Hopkins, begins to emerge as the star.
Given the fact that the entire film is centered on Richard Harris as the whale-hunted fisherman Captain Nolan, I'm led to believe that we're supposed to care about this man's plight. Unfortunately, I'm not able to connect with him on any level. The man is a fool and a douchebag, and I'm rooting for the whale to take him down and end the movie already. Nolan is paired with Charlotte Rampling as whale expert Dr. Rachel Bedford, a character who is a total bore.
Among the octopus's victims is Gleason's wife Vicky, but the emotion of that loss doesn't really come through in Hopkins' performance. He just gets sullen and rubs his face a bit. However, the loss does inspire Gleason's plan to seek revenge by setting his killer whales Summer and Winter (named for the seasons when he met and married Vicky) loose on the octopus. The emotional talk Gleason has with his whales before the final battle is one of my favorite moments in the film... and perhaps in cinema history.
That whale can emote! The death of his mate and unborn calf drives the bull orca crazy with grief, and the rage that blackfish is feeling really comes through in the film. Sure, it does some awful things while getting its revenge, but it does some awesome things as well - like managing to detonate a large explosion on land. Its celebratory leaps from the water when it has accomplished something it's pleased with add a touch of the adorable among all the violence as well.
The TENTACLES production recovered from the sinking of an expensive giant octopus prop reasonably well. You can tell the octopus moving through the water is a large rubber beast and that a sinking ship is a toy boat, but it works for the movie. The opening kill - a baby snatched from its stroller - will probably stick in the viewer's mind more than any other, but I feel that the best executed kill is when we see the octopus wrap itself around a boat that Vicky's sister is on.
I may find ORCA to be an incredibly dull film, but it's certainly not lacking in the special effects area. The whales were brought to the screen in a very impressive manner, and I really only found fault with one very quick shot involving the fate of a character played by future REVENGE OF THE NERDS star Robert Carradine. The greatest sequence in the film has the whale bringing down a house built on stilts over the water, putting its inhabitants, especially a broken-legged Bo Derek, in a bad situation.
The score by Stelvio Cipriani is often stunningly inappropriate, but Assonitis features it quite prominently - there are several sequences that are carried entirely by this "what were they thinking?" music. The use of the harpsichord was greatly appreciated, though.
The score composed for ORCA by the legendary Ennio Morricone perfectly fits the imagery it's accompanying at all times. It's subtly effective for the most part, and at times rather beautiful. It doesn't often call attention to itself, but when it does, it's great.
As far as entertainment value goes, TENTACLES would win by a landslide. It's a fun, goofy movie that keeps the action and kill sequences coming. ORCA, on the other hand, feels like an interminable slog, and yet still shines in some areas - the score, the emotion, and the effects - and that's enough for it to end the Face-Off in a tie. If I had to choose which one I'd rather watch, I'd take multiple viewings of TENTACLES over another one of ORCA, but when all categories are taken into account I can't give one the victory over the other.

Which film do you prefer? Do you agree with the results of this Face-Off, or do you think one should have trounced the other? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and if you have an idea for a Face-Off that you would like to see, let me know at [email protected].



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