Fan ICHF: Octalus

This ICHF was written by Lydia, who you can find at https://lydiathespiderqueen.tumblr.com/. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!

I’ve often been of the opinion that horror is at its best when it blends with other genres. Fear is a universal human emotion, which can be drawn from prettymuch any experience imaginable. When served raw, there’s always the chance that the audience might become consciously aware of the fact that someone is deliberately trying to scare them. Thus, in order to be scared, we need to be drawn into the story on its own merits. 

Thus, it seems only natural that when Stephen Sommers – a man most known for action/adventure movies – decided to dip his toes into horror, the result would be a fascinating cocktail of flavors. 

Deep Rising doesn’t pretend that it’s not a horror movie – the opening title card about the Devil’s Triangle, and the hundreds of mysteriously vanished ships dives gleefully into the trappings of the genre. But once our appetites have been whetted, the story lends more focus to the shady underworld dealings of this cruise ship, the mercenaries coming to aid an insurance scheme, and the master thief hiding aboard. Sommers is very much in his comfort zone right now. 

Like any good heist movie, the cast are a colorful bunch, with our snarky mercenary leader, his whiny-yet-competent mechanic, said mechanic’s doting-yet-sardonic girlfriend, and a group of cutthroat saboteurs who banter like old classmates. Their job is to take over the ship, evacuate everyone, then sink it with a torpedo. The exact reasoning behind this scheme isn’t delved into yet – “If the cash is there, we do not care” is the protagonists’ motto. 

Of course, when the plucky group of assholes finally reach the ship and come aboard, they find that someone seems to have beaten them to the evacuation. The ship is almost completely vacant. And as they separate to explore and figure out where to go from here, something begins picking them off. 

It’s not long before they discover a handful of survivors who managed to endure whatever stripped the ship of life, just in time for our horror to make its grand entrance. A grotesque, slimy, green thing descends from the rafters, looking somewhere between a bobbit worm and an anaconda. An ominous lump descends down its body, briefly showing the imprint of a human hand pressing out from inside, just in case there’s any doubt what became of the ship’s passengers. 

To sell the point anyway, the mercenaries unload their weapons into the worm, cutting its belly open and spilling the contents – one of their missing comrades, now lying in a pool of his own melted flesh, tissue sloughing off of his body. He manages to stand up and take two steps before the corrosion reaches his skull and he mercifully keels over. 

It’s considered common practice to hide the monster until the climax, revealing it only for the grand money shots. Deep Rising meets us halfway with this, the creatures appearing as a mysterious force slinking through the ship with the walls between it and the humans. They erupt from the ground, bend the metal doors and drag people under the water – or into the toilet in one memorable scene – but reveal themselves once the action starts to kick into high gear. 

Guilermo Del Toro once said that, as scary as the monster is, once it’s out in the open, it loses something. It needs to be able to continue to surprise you in order to keep you on your toes. And we get a small piece of this during a tense scene as one of our ‘heroes’ is backed into a corner by one of the worms. It slinks through the machinery, seemingly unable to follow him – then zeroing in the moment he picks up his gun, apparently hunting entirely by sound. As it stalks its prey, the creature displays a rather simplistic design, with a pointed snout composed of several tightly closed jaws. It’s only once it ‘spots’ him that it opens wide, the ‘jaws’ folding back, the gums unfurling, revealing several pairs of mandibles, which themselves part to reveal a set of tooth-lined gums and a jaw structure that is entirely too human. 

These creatures chase the survivors deeper and deeper into the ship, until they take shelter in a small room in the bowels of the ship, bolting the doors and setting up a defensible perimeter. There, they debate what to do next. Some of the mercs want to hole up and wait for rescue, while others want to try and fight their way up. The latter prospect is growing increasingly bleak, as it becomes more and more clear that the creatures are infesting every nook and cranny of the ship, and have almost certainly overrun the speedboat they arrived on. Holding their position seems like the most logical choice. 

However, one of them takes this moment to relate an old experience he once had, in which someone placed a goldfish inside a water bottle and threw it to an octopus. In two minutes, the octopus managed to pry the lid off, slid inside and ate the fish. As safe as this room seems now, all they’ve done is gathered into one place and given the creatures all the time they need to figure out how to get in. 

Sure enough, one emerges from the ventilation shaft, prompting the group to flee – all but one, who stays behind and empties his weapon into the thing, causing it to retreat. He manages to celebrate his victory for all of five seconds before it creeps up behind him and scarfs him down like a hotdog. 

It’s at this point that one thing becomes abundantly clear: These things are most definitely herding them deeper into the ship. And it doesn’t take long for them to see where they’re going, as they enter the very lowest level, gazing at the remnants of the creature’s feast. 

Blood-soaked skeletons litter the walls and floors, piled up in great mounds so thick, you can hardly tell where one ends and another begins. And as we pan over this graveyard, we hear the distant, faint sounds of screaming, panicked passengers, a ghostly echo of what had gone on just hours before. 

The discovery of a victim’s remains is usually a moment of horror and disgust, both for the audience and characters. But the scene here actually seems to be playing for pathos – this was a tragedy. These innocent people died horribly, terrified. We’ve already seen what happens to a person who was swallowed by them. As horrific as it is when someone is broken in half or shredded as they’re pulled through the pipes, the awful truth is that they’re the lucky ones. There’s a sadness to the moment that you don’t often get in scenes like this.  

There’s nothing revealed here that we didn’t already know before, but it takes a moment to hit home with us. This is what happened. This is what we’re fleeing from. This is what we’re up against. And this is the fate that awaits any who fall to the monsters. 

And now that we’re at the lowest level of the ship, it’s time to pull out all the stops. The boat quakes and floods as something enormous rises from the center. More and more worms spill out as a huge mass bulges up between them. Are we about to meet their queen? 

Well, one might have noticed that at no point have we seen any of these things’ tails. And curiously, despite clearly being in pain from gunfire, none of them have been killed. Well, there’s a reason for that. 

We haven’t been fighting worms. We’ve been fighting tentacles. 

Guess that octopus metaphor was a lot more apt than we thought, huh? 

Now, up until this point, our monster – dubbed Octalus – has seemed to be a fairly straightforward swarm of hungry beasts. There’s an obvious intelligence to them as they’ve herded our protagonists, but little in the way of communication. 

That goes RIGHT out the window as our lead is snatched up by one of the tendrils and brought forth to the head, which spins around and glares at him with leering blue eyes. The hungry menace finally has a face. The mouth on the tentacle slaps him across the cheek, then makes a series of guttural noises that cannot possibly be anything other than mocking laughter. The head furrows its brow and sneers at him, bringing him close so that it can finally get a good look at these things that’ve been causing it so much frustration. 

Remember that thing about monsters needing to surprise you? Well, this is one of the finest examples of that in cinema, in my opinion. An unknowable alien force has revealed itself to not only be intelligent, but highly emotional. While the full design is undeniably alien, combining elements of prettymuch everything nasty that lives in the ocean, the “face” remains incredibly expressive. Furrowed brows clench over its bulbous, sac-like eyes, its jawless maw twists into an angry snarl, but more than that, its very body language conveys emotions. The tentacle was swift in plucking the hero, but the head takes its time, swinging around and investigating him. When it brings him up to its eye and meets his gaze, the sentiment needs no words to be understood: “What now, asshole?” 

For the first time, in this movie and possibly in its whole existence, Octalus confronts a human, not as food, but as an enemy. And as horrifying as its full, hideous body is, there’s the undeniable excitement at the realization that on some level, this kaiju-sized monster is acknowledging a human as a worthy opponent. 

Most of the time, I am inclined to think that horrific tragedies being caused by cold, unfeeling nature is a scarier, more disturbing notion than such things being done by consciously malevolent forces. And yet Octalus is far more exciting for this reveal. And I think that’s because, as intelligent and personified as it is, it’s still a predator. It didn’t kill these people for fun. Its nightmarish digestive process is simply the result of evolution. There is no malice intended against its victims – that malice is instead directed at the ones who’ve managed to fight back. We’ve hurt it badly enough that it now wants to kill us specifically. And that’s a notion that’s equal parts exciting and frightening. 

But of course, now that it’s a straight up villain, rather than a soulless force, what’s a hero to do but to deliver a one-liner and shoot it in the eye? 

Once again injured, Octalus drops its enemy and the final chase begins – and this is the point where we’ve transitioned from horror to action-horror, to full-blown action. Now no longer hidden beneath the veil of mystique, Octalus becomes a snarling, in-your-face killing machine, plunging its tentacles through the rapidly sinking ship, giving chase as our heroes flee on a jet ski. The highjacking plot intersects with the monster movie plot, coming together in an explosive finale. 

Many horror icons lose some of their punch when their films switch from horror to action, and I think Octalus is notable in that it seems to thrive on this intersection instead. Obviously, this has something to do with the fact that it was designed for this genre crossover to begin with. It can play either role, and the story is constructed in such a way as to lead organically from one genre to the next. When it’s pure horror, Octalus is an unseen force lurking just behind the walls, almost seeming to be one with the ship. The horror is the environment itself, because it could betray you at any moment. But when it slides into action, the monster slides with it, revealing a very expressive new face, showing emotions beyond hunger, and being able to keep up with the increasingly flashy stunts that our classical action heroes dole out. There’s a great sense of reward to the pacing, as the longer our heroes last against the monster, the more fun the battle becomes, despite the danger level technically rising. 

Octalus is a very stylized monster, designed to demonstrate sincere malevolence when brought into the light. But it’s also a very naturalistic one, resembling something that our oceans might legitimately produce somewhere, far beyond our eyes. Sure, real world predators aren’t known for being sneering, cackling supervillains. But cephalopods are known for their incredible intelligence. Is it really such a stretch to imagine that one of such colossal size might have enough brain matter to be truly sapient? And if such a behemoth is on our level, then surely it must be capable of the same kind of malice we are. It’s a delicate balance, but one that I think pays off brilliantly – a Halloween spook who’ll sincerely frighten you, but only in the best ways. 

In some ways, those freakishly humanoid jaws foreshadow the final reveal of the monster’s character. But Octalus isn’t a dire warning of the horrors we, as humans, inflict upon the ocean. It isn’t reversing the roles to show us how nature feels in our presence. It’s just a loveable asshole in a cast filled with loveable assholes. 

This entry was posted in Creepy Columns, Iconic Characters of Horror Fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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