OCTAMAN (1971)
Director: Harry Essex
Retromedia/BayView Entertainment

Harry Essex is no stranger to classic science fiction, having contributed to the screenplays for MAN MADE MONSTER, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, and the film he’s best know for, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. In the 1970s, he directed two of his own sci-fi flicks, the first being OCTAMAN in 1971, a shoddy but enjoyable rubber-suit monster romp which is essentially a remake of CREATURE. For the 40th anniversary of OCTAMAN, Retromedia now unleashes the tentacled mutation on DVD, along with Essex’s follow-up THE CREMATORS (which Retromedia had out as a single disc some ten years ago).

In a remote Mexican community, Dr. Rick Torres (Kerwin Matthews, BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH) is conducting research on the sea life, discovering that the water is contaminated with nuclear radiation. He also finds a strange-looking, missing-link baby octopus which appears to be thinking while giving glances back to its human captors. After the locals report seeing a humanoid, man-sized octopus being roaming around, Torres wants an expedition financed, and when his superiors shoot his proposal down, he turns to a carnival owner who hopes to capture such a creature and put it on display for big bucks. With an expedition team that includes Torres’ fiancée Susan (Pier Angeli, SPY IN YOUR EYE), they manage to roll an RV into the terra firma where the lumbering Octaman (Read Morgan, a busy TV and movie character usually cast as a cop) terrorizes them. The Octaman manages to attack members of the group from every possible angle, and he appears to have a crush on Susan, who he carries off with whenever the opportunity arises.

Although OCTAMAN’s ecology awareness fits into an early 1970s mindset, the film is an absolute throwback to 1950s monster movies (the script was supposedly laying around since that time), and as ridiculous as it is, it’s an enjoyable, undemanding piece of schlock that thankfully runs less than 80 minutes. The unforgettable rubbery monster costume has a huge alien-like heard with stationary eyes and an unmovable mouth of sharp fangs and endless lines of fastened-on suction cups. Its tentacles are incorporated into the suit’s arms and legs, with a second pairs of tentacles under the actor’s arms being connected by wires (the rest of the tentacles hang limp like tails). When victims are bear-hugged by Octaman, they grasp his extra feelies to their bodies and pretend to struggle, much like what Bela Lugosi’s stuntman did during a similar attack in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER. The monster was designed by George Barr and created by Rick Baker (the future Oscar winner working on his first feature) and Doug Beswick; it would surely take first price in virtually any Halloween costume contest, but not it's not in the least bit convincing to filmgoers.

OCTAMAN always get attacked by fans and critics for its amateurish shooting style, but you have to admit that there’s some nice, creative shots of the monster (it is lensed from just about every angle and is featured prominently throughout the running time) and his point of view has him seeing things in quadruple or more, much like that episode of “Gilligan’s Island” where Gilligan bumps his head and his eyes go bonkers. The monster attacks bring on some gore, notably when, in a flashback, it pokes out someone’s eye with the point of its tentacle and then proceeds to throw the poor guy (actually, the most unconvincing dummy ever) over a cliff. Reportedly, the film was shot in Mexico (than why all the American actors faking accents?), but mostly in the appropriately scenic Californian Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park, the same backdrop used for countless old horror and sci-fi films, as well as B westerns and serials.

A graying Matthews, probably best known for his starring role in 1958’s THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, is good as the intelligent, reliable hero, and it’s quite remarkable how seriously he takes the material (he would next do THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF but would soon retire from cinema, except for a cameo in John Stanley’s NIGHTMARE IN BLOOD). Italian-born Pier Angeli, a popular and highly publicized Hollywood actress of the 1950s, has nothing much to do except scream, make reference to an old submarine movie, and get carried off by the monster (sadly, she died of an accidental barbiturate overdose at the age of 39 during the production). As Octaman, Morgan looks as though he’s seen just about every previous lumbering monster movie ever made, as he swings his tentacles and persecutes his assorted victims in such a way that tries to breathe life into a lifeless costume. Beloved character actor Buck Kartalian (who was in everything from PLANET OF THE APES to PLEASE DON’T EAT MY MOTHER) is killed off early as a Mexican-accented dumbbell that makes the mistake of attempting to cut into a baby octopus before Octaman barges in his tent and saves his little friend. Most likely to remind us of the glory days of 1950s sci-fi, Jeff Morrow (THIS ISLAND EARTH) has a cameo as a researcher seen staring at a modest-sized tank and scribbling notes on a pad in what looks to be a pet fish store.

In the bonus section of the disc, you’ll find THE CREMATORS (1972). A meteorite carrying an alien arrives at a small seaside community. The alien is actually a huge ball of fire that mows people down, absorbing their lives to replenish its own. The effects of the fire ball terrorizing human victims are ok, but the result is a body-shaped pile of cigarette ashes that's on the same miniature scale as "Mr. Bill." Most of the film's brief (70 minutes+) is occupied by a scientist (Marvin Howard) and his attempts to discover the alien's makeup and reason for taking human lives. Howard sleepwalks through a performance that's reminiscent of Bruce Dern on a really bad day. To make matters worse, sexy Canadian import Maria De Aragon is brought in as the love interest, but she is given nothing to do and is better utilized in R-rated films of the period such as BLOOD MANIA.

Originally released by Roger Corman's New World Pictures and also known as THE DUNE ROLLERS (probably changed as to not confuse it with an exciting roller derby picture), THE CREMATORS has bad special effects, lousy acting (by a cast of a dozen), incompetently lit scenes, and choppy editing that makes you feel like you're watching a "digest" version of the film (even though it seems really loooong) make this one of the worst. Essex's attempt to pay tribute to 1950s sci-fi is appreciated, but his amateurish execution simply results in a boring, laughable rehash. OCTAMAN is at least more fun then then similar cheapies as ZAAT (THE BLOOD WATERS OF DR. Z) and those Larry Buchanan AIP-TV monster flicks, but this one… well let’s say you have to really be in the mood or "half in the bag".

Retromedia premieres OCTAMAN here in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer (though the back of the cover states 1.78:1). The print source is in immaculate condition, and colors look intense throughout, especially in daytime scenes, with the crimson paint substituting as blood being especially notable. Darker scenes are mostly good, with detail drowning out a bit and some artifacting witnessed during such scenes, but on a whole, the presentation is really nice. The mono English audio here is mostly clear, with some scratchiness apparent. The bonus film, THE CREMATORS, likely was shot on 16mm and later blown up to 35, giving way for lots of grain (and in this case, the terrible production values that plague it). Taking this into consideration, the DVD transfer looks excellent, taken from pristine 35mm elements, with strong colors and detail being as sharp as it could possibly be. This looks to be the same source print as Retromedia’s old single disc, but the film has now been letterboxed to 1.78:1 yet non-anamorphic (zooming in on a widescreen television will help to see it more correctly). The mono audio is also fine, aside from several irritating disruptions caused by the film's erratic editing style.

Carried over from the original CREMATORS disc is an on-camera interview with actress De Aragon, shot at a convention. She claims that she was surprised to learn that THE CREMATORS only cost $50,000 to make (I'm not) and that she was hired mainly since Essex and his wife thought she resembled Julie Adams! De Aragon also talks a bit about acting with Ross Hagen in WONDER WOMEN, as well as the enormous cult attention she gets for her small uncredited role in STAR WARS (as the alien Greedo). The amusing “Drive-In Theater” intro with Fred Olen Ray and Miss Kim is included, as is a CREMATORS trailer (sourced from video, and letterboxed), which was not included on the original single disc. (George R. Reis)