Flailing Tentacles & Flaming Balls

Despite a long successful career in film and television, Harry Essex is undoubtedly best remembered for writing the screenplays for two of Universal Pictures’ most-beloved science fiction classics of the 1950’s, Creature From the Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space. Sometime in the very early 1970’s, Essex, presumably swayed by the growing market for low-budget, quickly produced, drive-in intended genre fare, decided to take a shot at directing his own “creature feature”.

While not his first directorial effort, it was his first attempt in over 15 years, as well as his first attempt at genre fare. Despite featuring a new creature creation from an unknown young effects artist named Rick Baker, as well as a few minor changes to the plot, Essex chose to essentially remake his biggest success, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Whether this was a wise move or not is debatable, but the final product was released in late 1971 as  Octaman.

In late 2016, Kino Lorber announced that they would be bringing the film to Blu-ray, with a given release date of Spring 2017. The year came and went without any news or updates. Finally, in the first few days of 2018, a new Blu-ray was announced by Fred Olen Ray’s Retromedia label, with release planned for just a couple of weeks later. The disc was released on January 18th, 2018 and came packaged with Essex’s follow-up film, 1972’s The Cremators, included as a bonus film.

The film’s biggest claim to fame is the creative yet hokey looking Octaman costume, created by a teenaged Baker in his first film work. Despite some impressive detail work on the creature’s face, the suit is a mess of rubber arms and legs with a beak-like mouth that is incapable of movement. The film attempts to inject a pro-environmental message early on, but it’s pretty hard to take that message seriously once you see the Octaman suit. It becomes downright impossible to take anything seriously once the creature tosses an even less-believable looking dummy off a cliff during an early flashback sequence.

The story begins when a scientific expedition in Mexico reveals massive amounts of radiation in the streams and ponds of a small fishing village, a village that does not appear to be located anywhere near the ocean. The radiation theory is proven just a short time later by the discovery of a small mutated octopus with the ability to crawl on land, and possibly some rudimentary ability to understand speech.

The lead scientist, Rick Torres (Kerwin Matthews – The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Boy Who Cried Werewolf), returns to America to seek funding for further investigation into the octopi, but is denied by his superiors in the scientific community (including This Island Earth‘s Jeff Morrow in a bit part). His only other recourse is to seek funding from outside sources. His research is finally funded by circus owner Johnny Caruso (Jerome Guardino – Victims, Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo) who wishes to use the creatures as the latest pieces in his sideshow’s collection of “freaks and oddities”. While Rick and his lover/partner, Susan (Pier Angeli – Sodom and Gomorrah, Battle of the Bulge), are visiting Caruso at his ranch to seal the deal, their camp back in Mexico is attacked by a large humanoid octopus creature. An Octaman. Shouldn’t that be OctOman? Ehh, whatever.

There is some indication that the Octaman is the parent of these smaller octopi, and that the large creature is just defending its family, but as promising an avenue as that is for advancing the story, it is never really developed.

The scientists, with Caruso and his “right-hand man” in tow, return to their camp and find the aftermath of the Octaman’s assault, as well as a few dead crew members. Davido, a teenage Mexican boy from the village, tells the scientists about the age-old local legend of a “sea serpent man” and offers to take them to where it is rumored to live. I have some issue with Octaman being a “local legend” as I can’t imagine man-made radiation and pollution having been in the area for THAT long, especially since there is supposed to be some “ecological warning” buried under all this rubber suited silliness. However, I have way more issue with just how non-Mexican the actor playing “Davido” is. That might be because, in a shameless display of nepotism, the actor is actually the director’s son, David Essex. He, however, is not the same David Essex that would have a hit song with “Rock On” just a year or two later.

As mentioned, the film plays quite a bit like Creature, but with an RV taking the place of a boat. Rick and a few of the other men go out searching for the creature, only to have it show up at the RV in their absence to terrorize Susan and Caruso. The creature manages to kill a secondary character and injure Caruso before being ran off. Rick and his crew soon make the same mistake a second time, almost leading to a second death in the ranks. The creature is finally tracked to an underground lair in a nearby cave, leading to some pointless cave exploring, as well as a final fatal encounter.

The majority of the performances are lackluster, with most of the actors looking quite bored in their roles. Only Norman Fields (Booby Trap, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song) seems to be enjoying himself here and gives the closest thing to a stand-out performance as the other scientist in Rick’s camp. That said, his character reminded me a bit of Bing Crosby as he is frequently seen puffing on his pipe and usually only speaks to provide some quiet wisdom. Pier Angeli seems incredibly lifeless in her performance, which may have been a reflection of the actress’s own personal demons. Angeli would die from an intentional overdose in September of 1971, just months before the film’s release. She was only 39 years old.

VIDEO/AUDIO:

While I don’t pretend to know the specifics of the HD transfer used for Retromedia’s Blu-ray of Octaman, the picture quality found on this release is really quite satisfactory, albeit with a few minor issues. There does not appear to be much clean-up made to the print. That’s not to say that this an unclean image, but that the print appears to have been transferred “as is”. Grain is on the heavier side, and there are a few minor scratches throughout, but nothing that comes remotely close to being distracting.

The film also features quite a bit of stock footage, usually of wild animals. This footage still looks pretty lacking given the HD upgrade, but not much can really be done there. Facial features and hair are fairly sharp despite most of the film being shot with a somewhat “softer” look. Details in the creature suit are also quite pleasing, even if the HD upgrade does help to accentuate the shortcomings in the construction.

There are a couple minor discoloration issues that could have used some correction, but they are never much of an issue. The film also features quite a few day-for-night shots, and was noticeably filmed with quite a bit of natural lighting. This leaves some scenes looking fairly dark and a little hard to see, but this is inherent to the way the film was shot and not any fault of the transfer. That said, there is some digital break-up noticeable in the corner of the screen in darker sequences, such as those in the cave.

 

 

THE CREMATORS (1972):

After some stock footage of space, a narrator informs us that a meteor crashed to Earth over 300 years ago. Upon impact, the meteor became a sentient rolling ball of flame, ran over and killed an Indian (David Essex, returning for another of Dad’s films), and fell into the ocean where a fish (wonderfully played here by a hammerhead shark) watched it dissolve away and seemingly die. Many years later, the “fish” also died. Coincidence? Probably not.

Researcher Iane Thorne (Marvin Howard) finds a small, shiny rock on the shores of some undefined body of water. When the rock begins to show signs of bioluminescence, he attempts to ship it out for further analysis. However, the postal carrier is killed when the rocks (not sure how or when they became plural) start to glow, summoning the return of the giant rolling ball of fiery death. Honestly, the creature looks like a lit up Cheese Ball, but unlike Octaman, the laughable aesthetics don’t provide enough unintentional comic relief to overcome just how much of a dreary, boring, train wreck The Cremators is.

 

Maria DeAragon shows up as a love interest with nothing to add to the story and no real reason for being there. Cult film fans may remember DeAragon from 1970’s cult fave Blood Mania, but she’s probably best known for being under the “Greedo” mask in Star Wars.

The Cremator(s) occasionally resurfaces to kill off generally unessential characters, but viewers will want to set themselves on fire long before the creature has had a chance to rack up much of a kill count. The transfer presented on this release is pretty clean, but does nothing to enhance the film’s naturally dull and unfocused look. Nor does it make the film watchable.

 

SPECIAL FEATURES:

Rick Baker Remembers: HD – 25 mins : Baker discusses taking the job despite being just a teenager still enrolled full-time in junior college. The job was essentially “passed down” to him by friends and colleagues who had already passed on the project. Due to budget constraints, Baker explains that he was never able to make a proper mold of the actor playing the Octaman, helping the costume look less than stellar. He also states that quite a bit of the construction was pure experimentation, leading to new techniques that Baker himself had never seen used before.

Baker basically calls the shoot a “train wreck”, detailing not only mistakes caused by the rush to meet the quick shooting schedule, but by general indifference as well. That said, while not exactly proud of the finished product, Baker still takes pride in it leading to bigger opportunities.

Maria DeAragon Interview: – SD – 8 mins: This is an archival interview, presumably from the late 1990’s (possibly early 2000s). DeAragon spends most of the interview discussing her involvement with the film, as well as her working relationship with Essex, before wrapping up the piece with a quick anecdote on meeting with George Lucas and landing the role of “Greedo” in the first Star Wars film.

 

FINAL VERDICT:

Octaman is a poorly made film that still manages to provide some braindead entertainment value, mostly due to its decent pace and not-so-decent, yet still adorable, failings in costume design. The Cremators is 78 minutes of pure, unfiltered pain.

Both films receive solid, if unspectacular transfers, but due to the inferior film stock used for both films, there was only so much improvement possible. This release is definitely not for everyone, and students of the “so bad it’s good” school of thought should be the most apt to apply.

Purchase Octaman/The Cremators on Blu-ray on the Horror And Sons Amazon Recommendations Page: https://www.amazon.com/shop/horrorandsons

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