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Sunday, February 10, 2013


Harry Essex managed to bring a slice of the 50s into the 70s with his first of two low-budget monster films: Octaman. The story loosely follows the by-now-hackneyed formula of rubber suit monster randomly attacking people. Essex was the writer, director and producer. As such, Octaman suffers in the usual ways. As a director, Essex created a movie with the look and feel of a made-for-television film. But, Octaman appears designed to be a second-run feature for the drive-in market. It first aired in Mexico in late 1971, but also ran in Germany, curiously. The American poster got a German subtitle: Beast of the Deep.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A narrator intones about mankind's search for answers to mysteries, then quickly settles on the legends of a half-man-half-octopus, "the hideous fruit of atomic radiation, in the form of a bizarre legend wrapped in horror and written in blood." A team of scientists are in some latin american country measuring water samples for radiation. It is dangerously high. They find a little (plastic) octopus with strangely hypnotic eyes. When all but one of the scientists go to town for supplies, Octaman kills the remaining scientist and retrieves his octo-buddy. The others return and are convinced there is some "mewtant" creature afoot. The team's sponsor (Jeff Morrow) refuses to fund any search for monsters. So, Rick convinces a publicity-hungry rancher to fund the search. They search, and Octaman manages to kill a few of them off, one by one. Davido ("The Indian") says he knows where to look. His grandmother told him of the spot where the beast killed his father long ago. The team motors over in their Ford Condor motorhome and set up camp. Susan, Rick's fiancee, gets spooky intuitions when the beast is near. Octaman kills off a few more people. Rancher Johnny wants to cancel the safari. Octo knocks out Johnny and abducts Susan. Rick, Steve and Mort surround Octo with a ring of fire to deprive him of oxygen. He passes out. Rick rescues Susan. Octo is captured, safely sedated and under a big net. But, he wakes up. Susan talks him into going away instead of killing them. (?) Their search led them to a cave (Bronson Caverns). Octo traps them with a cave in, but the team find a way out. Octo waits in ambush in the motorhome. After much fighting, Octo has Rick in a choke hold. Susan convinces Octo to take her and spare Rick. Octo carries off Susan (again). She shoots him in the chest. The other guys arrive and blast Octo with their guns too. Octo, full of holes, shuffles back into the pond. Bubble bubble. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Octaman is a throwback to the Golden Era of B sci-fi, when men in rubber suit monster costumes were king.

Cultural Connection
The 50s' angst over the danger of radiation was pretty badly faded by the 70s. The old fear was spruced up with a coat of Enviro-Angst for the next generation. Back in the 50s, people worried about radiation, but more in the sense of sudden death. After the Cold War tension had cooled (or at least grown somewhat stale) over the 1960s, environmental fear was rising to take the place of Atomic Angst. Enter Essex's Octaman as the hybrid. Several times, the lead character and narrator preach and whine about how nasty people are to pollute the earth -- in this case with nuclear fallout from underwater testing.

Monster Star -- Essex opted, as the director, not to keep his monster mysterious. Instead of a slow, progressive "reveal" via shadows, feet, claws, etc. he puts his octo-monster on the screen right at the title. The film is really all about his octo-monster. Based on screen time alone, Octaman is THE star of the film. The rest of the cast are supporting roles, or fodder for his rage. The costume IS fairly elaborate for such a low-rent film and very reminiscent of Paul Blaisell's work. Rick Baker and Doug Beswick both got their start in special effects and makeup making the Octaman costume. Both would go on to work on Star Wars and become part of the post-Star-Wars generation of special effects men.

They're After Our Women! -- Essex includes, not just one, but TWO of the classic Abduction Scenes in Octaman. Twice, he has his monster fascinated with and then carrying off the desirable female. What he planned to do with her remained ill-defined. Take her to his underwater home and she'd just drown. She does her part too, in the classic idiom. She faints a lot so she's easier to carry. When she's conscious, she only kicks and protests a little. Monsters have long had a sort of Id-personified quality to them. An interesting twist on the Abduction Scene comes when Susan pulls out the revolver from her pocket and shoots her abductor in the chest. Modern women don't take to being abducted like they did in the old days.

Golden Echo -- Harry Essex's Octaman is an echo of the 50s in several ways. For one, Essex was a screenwriter for both It Came From Outer Space ('53). He reused the monster-eye-view camera effect from this film (though oddly with a multi-faceted lens when Octaman clearly had a single pupil). Essex also worked on the screenplay for Creature From the Black Lagoon ('54). From this, he borrowed the aqua-man-hybrid who has a beauty-and-the-beast attraction to the leading lady. Adding to the 50s feel is a cameo appearance of Jeff Morrow, Exeter in This Island Earth ('54) and starring in The Giant Claw ('57).

It's NOT Who You Know -- Being the son of the writer-director-producer might count for something, but it can't launch a career. Harry Essex got his son David a rather prominent role in Octaman. David plays the role of "Davido", the indian. While most of the acting in Octaman is marginal, David's comes across as someone all-too-aware that he's in front of cameras, filming a movie. Too many times, he's sporting a big stupid grin ("Hehe, I'm in a MOVIE!  Can you believe it?") when the role called for some other emotion.  His father would give him another try in his second attempt: The Cremators, (up next) with no better result. David Essex acted in no other films.

Sad Ending -- Not for the creature, but for the female star "Pier Angeli." Her real name was Anna Maria Pierangeli. As a young woman in the late 1940s, she wanted very badly to be a star. She worked at it, and landed some smallish parts in some films with big Hollywood names, such as Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Lorne Green, Paul Newman, and more. Yet, despite her obvious beauty, her career never seemed to take off. Perhaps her acting talent was not as strong as her beauty. Most of her roles were small or the films low-budget. When she did Octaman, she was 39 years old and starting to look more middle aged. She took her own life in September of '71 with an overdose of sleeping pills while Octaman was nearing the end of production. A low-rent film like Octaman seems like a sad way to end the career of a pretty actress. Some photos of Anna Maria in better days can be seen at AnnaMariaPierangeli.com

Bottom line? Octaman is a low-rent, cheesy monster flick with only a hint of science to its fiction. It is a very 50s-style of film which appears to be serious (not intended as a spoof). The acting is stiff to poor. The pacing is erratic. Some scenes are full of quick action, but some (like the climbing out of the cave) are clearly padding. Still, for fans of Golden Era B sci-fi, Octaman can be good cheap fun. For those raised on mega-budget CGI epics, Octaman will probably seem laughably stupid.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

In addition to be one of Pier Angeli's las films, it's one of thew last few films in which Kerwin Matthews and Jeff Morrow (two of my favorite character actors) appear.