Since the beginning of time men have roamed the earth and dared the elements in search of adventure. But today there is a new breed of adventurer —The scientist who explores uncharted areas of the world not for riches or adventure but in search of answers to man’s problems of pollution and disease. Such a man on such a quest leads an ecological expedition to a primitive Latin American fishing community where they uncover the hideous fruit of atomic radiation in the form of a bizarre legend wrapped in terror and written in blood…
Writer Harry Essex was at his peak game in the early 1950’s, penning screenplays for several notable film noir and sci-fi dramas. He was good at no-nonsense dialogue and tough guy situations, typified in films like William Castle’s The Fat Man (1951), about the murder of a dentist, starring Rock Hudon and Emmett Kelly (!); The Las Vegas Story (1952), about shady dealings and murder in Sin City; Kansas City Confidential (1952), centered around a million dollar heist; The 49th Man (1953), a cold-war drama about smuggling of atomic bomb parts; I, the Jury (1953), a Mike Hammer crime drama co-written with Mickey Spillane (look or listen for Alan “Fred Flintsone” Reed); and the Jack Webb classic Dragnet (1954).
During this time period, Essex wrote screenplays for two of the most enduring sci-fi classics ever made: It Came from Outer Space (1953)(Essex was nominated for a Hugo), written in co-operation with Ray Bradbury; and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Several years later, Essex directed his own film about an amphibious monster. This brings us to the drive-in movie shlock gem Octaman (1971).
Be forewarned —Octaman is not the Citizen Kane of mutant bi-pedal cephalopod films. For that matter, I’m not sure if there are even any other films depicting a human-octopus hybrid monster. Maybe there are. Perhaps SyFy Channel has come up with something by now. Sharkoctopithecus anyone? However, Octaman makes my list for “Bad Films I Love” and I’ll watch this any day over Tom Hanks crap like the forgettable Cloud Atlas (2012).
Octaman is exactly what I would expect a Harry Essex-directed film to be like. It’s hard to believe a film featuring a Rick Baker designed man-in-a-rubber-octopus-monster suit would be low key, but it is. Really. Octaman is a no-nonsense monster film that get’s right to the point in the opening moments. Essex weaves the story around environmental pressures, pollution and radioactivity, leading to the creation of mutant octopi, or octopodes. We see the daddy monster in the first few minutes of the film. Sometimes this approach works (e.g. Curse of the Demon (1957)), but other times it can be disastrous and ruins the suspense of a monster movie. I guess it really doesn’t matter when the title creature is a big rubbery thing.
However, I think there’s a little bit more to Octaman. The movie was made right at the cusp of the environmental movement (the EPA was created under the Nixon adminsitration in 1970). Octaman remotely bares resemblance to some environmental protest films (well, at least films that used environmental toxins as causation agents). It came out the same year as Toho’s Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971), and pre-dates the well-made British thriller Doomwatch (1972), about an island community deformed by endocrine disrupting chemicals; and John Frankenheimer’s underrated eco-thriller Prophecy (1979), featuring a killer mutant bear. I don’t think Essex was striving for an environmental message film, he was just justifying how the monster was created, but the early dialogue and prologue in the film suggests to me that Essex had at least brushed up on the subject.
Octaman stars familiar fantasy film faces Kerwin Mathews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958) and Jeff Morrow (This Island Earth, 1955) as scientists Dr. Rick Torres and Dr. John Willard, respectively. Sardinian-born Pier Angeli (Battle of the Bulge, 1965), who was friendly with James Dean in real life, got top billing as love interest Susan Lowry, and allegedly died of a drug overdose during the shooting of Octaman. She doesn’t look good in the film.
The film is set in Latin America, and was shot in Mexico and around the environs of Bronson Cave, Hollywood, California. The film actually has a rustic, rural feel, but sci-fi fans will immediately recognize the Bronson Canyon sequences.
The film opens with Dr. Torres and staff discovering high levels of radioactive contamination present in the blood of local natives. They primarily eat fishes derived from a river. Torres’ colleague Morty Stein discovers and captures “the devil” —a squid-like mutant he keeps in a minnow bucket (this minnow bucket prop makes no less than 20 separate appearances in the film). The little Octaman (Lil’ O for short) makes the sound of a wailing Humpback whale.
The scientists return Lil’ O back to the river, but decide to throw him back in the minnow bucket, not knowing that big daddy O is keeping a keen eye on them.
Later, another Lil’ O is captured (designated #2), and partially dissected with a scalpel, and in a scene reminiscent of Creature from the Black Lagoon, big daddy O attacks one of Torres’ assistants Raoul, who works out of a make-shift field lab/tent. Big daddy O saves Lil’ O #2 and returns to the river. Meanwhile, Torres flies to the International Ecological Institute, with Lil’ O #1 in a minnow bucket, to get scientific feedback from Dr. John Willard (Jeff Morrow). Lil’ O is dead. Willard discounts the creature as a “bizarre little squid”. Torres loses his grant money and must search for alternative funding.
The scenes at the institute are also similar to those filmed in Black Lagoon.
Torres enlists the services of Steve, a wrangler/animal trainer/cowboy/stunt man and financial support from a Coney Island Carny-man/exhibitor/entrepreneur named Johnny Caruso or “JC”. Torres, Susan, JC and Steve head out in a gigantic mobile home in search of Octaman. The uneasy alliance reminds me of the Yeti search party in Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman (1957), with Forrest Tucker playing the circus owner role.
Torres and friends return to basecamp to find Raoul dead and the minnow bucket empty. Torres speaks with the locals and learns about the legend of the Octaman…
As far as monsters go, Octaman is pretty darn ridiculous, with limp flailing arms and a bulbous head with frog-like eyes and a circular mouth like a lamprey. It’s hard for me to believe that Rick Baker designed the suit. However, I like it better than any of the SyFy original CGI monstrosities. Some of the sequences with Octaman stalking people at night are quite effective. It is when the creature is brought out into daylight, like Paul Blaisdell’s cone-headed alien Beulah from It Conquered the World (1956), that Octaman gets laughable. And entertaining he is.
I love how Octaman spreads his tentacles (Octopi actually have arms), flapping like a giant molluscan moth or butterfly. Octaman was played with gusto by Chicago-born actor Read Morgan, who appears as a cop in Back to the Future (1985)(he played a ton of cop and cowboy roles on television). He gives his all in this film.
Octaman is now available as a 40th Anniversary DVD disc, paired with Harry Essex’s last film directing The Cremators (1972). Octaman has never looked better. You could do a whole lot worse. Octaman is a bad film, but I love it!
They don’t make ’em like they used to!