I think it’s fair to say that it all started with 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
My Mum took me to see a cinematic re-release of the 1954 Richard Fleischer version back in the Seventies. Common sense tells me it must have been around 1978, when I was four, but the official date for the re-release was apparently 1976, which would place me at the tender age of two. Either way, I’d seen the ads on the TV and had badgered my already long-suffering mother into taking me. My poor old Mum still had untold delights of genre cinema awaiting her over the next few years, until I reached such an age as I could be safely abandoned in the cinema on my own. The arrival of this date may have ultimately been somewhat hastened by her sense of parental responsibility failing to outweigh her desire not to sit through Krull for a fourth time.
My four/two year-old self had been looking forward to 20,000 Leagues for one reason alone, and that reason had tentacles and a snapping yellow beak. The TV ads for the re-release had focused on the squid fight scene to such an extent that I genuinely think I expected Giant Squid: The Movie rather than the well-meaning Jules Verse adaptation that unrolled before me. Result: I fidgeted. A lot. I suspect that I may have engaged in thoughtful discussion regarding the narrative with my mum; discussion along the lines of ‘Will the squid be on soon?’ every couple of minutes throughout the lion’s share of the running time.
But when those tentacles finally crept onto the screen, I fell silent. How could I not? I was absolutely and utterly transfixed. The bastard was glorious. I left feeling that I’d seen the single greatest sequence ever filmed, and the tiny seeds of cheerful, fanboy obsession were scattered onto the fertile soil of my pre-school mind. Without seeing that squid attack, who knows? Maybe today I’d be the kind of guy who feels more comfortable with a rugby ball in his hand than a box of popcorn. Maybe I’d have never fallen in love with film. Of course, this being in the days before VHS, it was years before I got to see the sequence again. So, in the meantime, I hunted for memorabilia and photos. But, more than that, I hunted for more movies with enormous rubber cephalopods.
Pickings were pretty slim. A few years later, I fell instantly in love with Warlords of Atlantis and was more than willing to overlook its flaws on the basis of the wonderful stop-motion octopus. I tried, but failed, to find somewhere showing Tentacoli after hearing it luridly described by my uncle, but was delighted when that same uncle (genre writer Tim Stout, who had a novel and a couple of anthologies of short stories published in the seventies and early eighties) pointed me in the direction of It Came From Beneath The Sea on ITV one Sunday lunchtime.
The years passed, and the arrival of VHS meant that I was suddenly able to compile my favourite mollusc moments on one dog-eared tape. I’d sit with play and record set to pause, waiting for the brief arrival of an octopus or squid in countless movies, such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, where I felt that such an appearance would be inevitable. My interests broadened and my tastes became more varied, but the root of why I grew to love cinema in the first place always remained.
I was eleven years old when pre-publicity started turning up for the big Spielberg-produced Christmas movie that year, The Goonies. By this point, I was devouring any information about film that I could lay my hands on. I used to obsessively collect bubblegum cards just to catch glimpses of scenes that hadn’t yet seen the light of a projector bulb. I used to read novelisations that were released before the movie’s launch.
And that was where I found it.
First page of the novelisation of The Goonies. On the inside leaf; a teaser bit of text from later in the novel, designed to whet your appetite. A description of an octopus attacking the kids, in a flooded cavern with a pirate ship floating sedately in the background.
For those couple of weeks, pocket money went exclusively on Goonies bubblegum cards. Early on in my quest, I picked up an index card. I noticed that cards 43 and 44 were listed Tentacles of Death! and The Rockin’ Octopus! respectively. Those were my Grail. I tore packets and chewed neon pink bubblegum until my teeth were falling like rain. Eventually, I got both cards. Tentacles of Death! was actually a split image, meaning there were two pictures on one card. Two smaller pictures, in other words. I squinted and squinted. I even used a magnifying glass. My appetite was most definitely whetted. The Rockin’ Octopus! showed the beast in all its glory, and took my breath away when I opened the packet. I bought the soundtrack album and grooved to the absolutely dreadful sounds of Eight Arms to Hold You by the Goon Squad, the song that I knew would ultimately score the scene.
I can still remember how I felt, queuing to see the movie a couple of weeks later. When it finally hit the screen, I knew virtually every line in advance from all my background reading. My impatience to get to the octopus stopped me from enjoying it fully. Twenty minutes from the end, the kids splashed down into the cavern with the pirate ship. I knew that, at any moment, Stef would start accusing Mouth of groping her underwater, not realising that it was a tentacle brushing past her leg.
Except she didn’t. The kids got on board the pirate ship without incident.
I did a double-take. I simply didn’t understand. I watched the rest of the film in a sort of daze, wondering where my octopus had gone. In the final scene on the beach, when a policeman asked the kids about their adventure, Data piped up;
“The giant octopus was pretty bad. Very scary”
It was everything I could do to stop myself crying.
I went to see the film again the following week at a different cinema, hoping that somehow there’d been a mix-up at the initial screening and that a reel had been missed. When it finally became apparent that all prints were mollusc-free, I wrote to Warner Brothers demanding the scene be reinstated. Or for them to send me a copy, whichever was easier. They didn’t reply. I collected any magazines that might be able to explain the situation, even spending the majority of a week’s pocket money on an imported issue of Cinefex which featured a couple of photos from the scene and, at last, a vague explanation of why it was removed. The word ‘unrealistic’ was cruelly bandied around.
It was another thirteen long years before I finally got to see the octopus scene in any form. During that time I considered various way-out plans to get to see the footage, including applying for a job at Burman Studios (who made the octopus) and asking for a copy of their showreel. I dreamt about the scene more times than I care to think about.
Then, one day in the late nineties, a grainy video clip turned up on a Goonies fan site. It had been video-captured from a US screening on The Disney Channel which reincorporated the scene. I sat and watch it a couple of dozen times, not really able to process the experience or even tell whether I was enjoying it or not. It was a further two years before I got to see it on a decent size screen, (on the final, nowadays inevitable, special edition DVD release), and probably another three for me to come to terms with the truth.
The truth about the octopus scene is very simple and straightforward. It’s crap. It doesn’t work. It’s badly executed, has no logical place in the movie and no pay-off. The flick works better without it.
But that’s a 36-year old screenwriter writing those words, and every time I even think about the subject the 11-year old that I used to be starts crying. And I can’t live with that.
So, the campaign for a director’s cut starts here.
And you can stick the rubber Suicide Squid back into Red Dwarf whilst you’re at it.