Hulu’s (formerly monthly) anthology series with Blumhouse returns for Valentine’s Day.
2.11 “Tentacles”: A couple falls head-over-heels into a new romance and entwine their lives–until their intimacy transforms into something terrifying.
Well here we are, Terry. I wasn’t sure if we had seen the last of Into The Dark, but thankfully July 2020’s The Current Occupant – arguably one of the franchise’s worst entries – isn’t the end of the road.
Instead we’re back with a new instalment and I feel like we won’t have an issue digging up things to discuss because the Nick Antosca / Alexandra Pechman-scripted, Clara Aranovich-directed Tentacles is a lot.
The plot, in a nutshell, features transient, or “displaced”, Tara (Dana Driori), who is crashing open houses looking for a place to sleep. At one failed venue, she has a meet-cute with commercial photographer Sam (Casey Deidrick), whom she overhears bickering with his business partner & friend Esther (Kasey Elise). Before you can say cunnilingus, Tara and Sam are going at it and she’s ingratiating herself into his life, renovating his parents’ run-down house for a potential flip.
Over time, the two become more and more domestic and Sam eventually proposes marriage, which doesn’t sit well with Esther because a) he’s changed, and b) she’s low-key in love with him. The other issue is that SPOILERS Tara is secretly a tentacled creature that uses sex to ensnare its victims before adopting their physical appearance, killing them, and taking over their lives. Rinse, lather, repeat.
All in all, it’s a minor spin on a pretty familiar tale: a man seduced by great sex from a hot, mysterious woman; a relationship that’s too good to be true; a best friend who offers warnings and is ultimately killed for knowing too much. Hell, even the downer ending, which confirms that Sam is simply the latest in a long line of victims (of both sexes!), plays a little too safe.
Don’t get me wrong, Terry, I actually liked Tentacles more than a lot of the entries that we’ve covered. It’s more streamlined than some of the messier entries and there’s enough intrigue in the first act to prevent things from feeling like it’s an hour long episode stretched to feature length.
Whether or not this was always intended as a Valentine’s Day-themed entry, Tentacles is also possibly the most graphic entry in the franchise we’ve seen with regards to sex. Antosca and Pechman lean hard into the succubus-like qualities of their villain and Aranovich finds plenty of creative ways to get around gun-shy censors with no less than two extended, fairly graphic sex scenes. Kudos to Driori and Deidrick for giving such bare performances.
And yet there’s also something holding Tentacles back from greatness. To me, one frustration is the queer elements lurking on the story’s periphery that are never fully explored.
Consider the moment that Tara takes on Sam’s visage when she is giving him head so that it looks like he’s fellating himself. This should be a great uncanny moment, but Antosca and Pechman’s script immediately knocks Sam out and then rushes through his disorientation to focus on a break-in. Why not let the implications of this visual linger and really revel in that discomfort?
Obviously as gay reviewers it’s hard not to look at this fairly straight forward tale of a dumb dude and his ultra hot, very sexually active new girlfriend and consider the queer story that could have been. But honestly, aside from the sexual progressiveness of this tale, it’s simply not boundary pushing enough. It’s a made-for-Hulu version of Benson and Moorhead’s Spring with R-rated sex scenes. Tentacles is doing a decent enough job of it, but this could have really pushed some boundaries.
Terry, did you have the same frustrations with the straight orientation of the film? Did the front half of Tentacles do enough for you or is this just another padded entry in the franchise? And what did you think of Esther’s death: is it a tragic love cut short, the usual sacrificial black friend in a horror film, or both?
I purposefully watched this entry in Into the Dark not knowing anything about it, other than the title, Joe. For most of the episodes in this series, the “twists and turns” always felt incredibly obvious and I wondered if it was because I knew too much of the story and watched the trailers beforehand.
Going in cold created a refreshing start to Tentacles because I genuinely think the first act is an intriguing mix of showing us just enough of the tentacled monster in the slasher-esqe opening scene and then leaving us to ponder who the monster is. The setup worked for me, as it made sense that this woman managed to “escape” her situation and is now living open-house-to-open-house to stay a step ahead of her stalker.
The furtive steps Tara takes with Sam also work because it’s the straight, white rom-com we’ve been conditioned to expect. Cinematographer Sing Howe Yam also distracts us from the outward threat with extreme close-ups of their faces and lips and the incredibly sexy way Sam aggressively pulls open her legs, throws back her skirt and gets down in there. It’s a safely erotic moment that brought me back to the 90s erotic thriller.
I loved the sped-up sex scene where the two go through the majority of sexual positions in a slightly blurred out fashion. I also liked Sam’s use of consent as he tried new moves. There’s nothing sexier than consent and when he places his hand on her throat and asks if it turns her on, allowing her to have control, worked for me.
Their sex talk also charmed me, particularly when they sit down on Tara’s inflatable mattress and Sam says, “who needs sexy music when you have an air mattress.” Or, later, in a completely different sort of intimate moment, he tells her “happy four months, weirdo,” as she pops a back zit. It’s funny and intimate. This is the kind of discussion that feels authentic; it’s two new lovers figuring each other out.
Unfortunately, by the end of the first act I absolutely knew that Tara wasn’t who (or what) she said she was and I spent most of the second act impatiently waiting for our dumb, sweet himbo Sam to catch up.
I try not to talk about the movie that “wasn’t” when discussing films, but I couldn’t help but notice how Tentacles couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. It felt like it could lean into the paranoid erotic thriller subgenre and we’d have a second act spent focusing on Sam’s attempt to understand who he’s dating and her mysterious dark past. But it stubbornly tries to be a standard romantic drama and unfortunately the conflict that arises between the two of them in the early half of act two felt forced and unrealistic.
For instance, when Sam enters his childhood home after Tara has begun renovations, he makes a comment that she’s made a lot of changes. She understandably replies that he told her to and whether she did something wrong? His response is “where’s my fucking keys” and she shouts, “Fine – I’m out.” It’s a weird escalation that ends with him talking about his parents’ death and it felt like the kind of non-conflict that bothers me in films like this. In absence of the paranoid thriller tropes, the entire conflict becomes relationship drama and, unfortunately, I don’t think the script is up to the task.
I ended up relating to Esther who is constantly amazed that they are progressing towards marriage when he barely knows her. She’s the audience’s viewpoint and because she’s sadly not in the film as much as I’d like, it left me to incredulously shake my head at the conflict.
We needed more Esther. And because she doesn’t feel like a well-developed character and is only used to create more conflict through a few scenes, such as when she drops off his photography equipment, she becomes less a person and more, as you suggested, a trope. The sacrificial friend-zoned black friend.
To double-down on what you also suggested, I was sad that the queer aspects of Tentacles were used more for set-dressing and color. The idea of a shapeshifting creature/person is inherently queer as it almost always explores gender and identity. I liked that the creature calling itself Tara is comfortable exploring different genders and sexualities, but the narrative felt unwilling to fully commit. It felt like wasted potential.
The scene you mentioned above where Sam sees himself giving himself head was such a fascinating moment that was unfortunately played for shock. It’s moments like that that showed Antosca and Pechman knew what they were doing, but it felt as if they either weren’t brave enough (or permitted) to go there.
The drama and romance aside, I’m curious what you thought about the actual horror of Tentacles, Joe. Did the slight body horror (bloody Q-tips feel like a nightmare situation) connect? Did you like the concept behind the tentacled beast? And did the monstrous stomach tentacle give you Slither vibes?
We’ve discussed the shoestring budgets and time constraints that these Into the Dark productions are working with ad nauseam, so I was willing to accept a decent (albeit not great) tentacle. Its size is actually a little surprising, considering that when Sam breaks into the bathroom, it seemed like he initially saw a series of small eel-like creatures in Tara’s place. I would have preferred Slither (or Shivers) sized creatures as they’re a little easier to pull off FX-wise than one large, torso-sized appendage.
Overall the ear stuff was the most effective for me. There are a couple of truly uncomfortable scenarios in horror films that will always work for me: anything with fingernails being ripped off, eyes being gouged, achilles being cut and, yes, ear drums being pierced are immediate shudder-inducing travesties.
So a bloody Q-tip? Ack!
Tara edging the end of her proboscis into Sam’s ear as he struggles to resist? Yes!
It all happens a little too quickly in that last act, but I appreciated that there was a decent pay-off after a fairly quiet second act. I particularly like the FX on Tara’s shifting visage when she drives Sam out to the desert to recover the money from the opening scene. Those flashes of past lives, and even seeing Sam come face to face with the horror that he has brought on himself proves to be good stuff.
Overall, I’m reasonably happy with this instalment. Again, I would have liked a few more risks, but Tentacles is a solid B- for me.
Terry: what’s your take on the final scene, which hints at more than one of these creatures? Would you be open to learning more about their origins/activities? And what’s your final score for this entry?
The best moment of the episode for me, Joe, was the final scene. From the reveal that there are more of these creatures to the implication that the two of those attractive men are going to just start boning to the world it opens up.
I’m not really sure I want to know more, though, because unless a sequel is framed completely differently (a la Pooka) I don’t think there’s a whole lot more a relatively low budget series could do with this material. So while I dug this scene and felt that it was a good – if narratively traditional – end to the story, I hope it ends here.
But my favorite moment was actually the last line of the episode, particularly because it felt like a direct homage to Eyes Wide Shut. Like Tentacles, Eyes Wide Shut is at least partially about fucking and intimacy (or lack thereof) and it all builds to such a fantastic set of dialogue between Alice (Nicole Kidman) and Bill (Tom Cruise) where she suggest there’s something they need to do as soon as possible. To which Bill replies, “What’s that?”
And her answer is: “Fuck.”
Here, we have the two tentacled monster men eye-screwing each other and the conversation is about whether there’s anything more calming than the ocean.
Tara/Sam Monster says there is, to which the other man says, “What’s that?” and the response is: “Fucking.” It’s just an interesting moment for me that made me chuckle more than anything because of how brazen of a…let’s call it homage…it is. I don’t think it has the same amount of darkly comedic gravitas that the line has in Eyes Wide Shut, but it is a fun summation of what we just spent 90 minutes watching.
Tentacles is probably one of the better entries in Into the Dark and while it didn’t completely work for me, there’s enough there to be a “soft recommend” for fans of the series. C+