Man versus Beast in horror is really about man versus himself; Martin Brody in Jaws is terrified of the water, and must overcome that fear to take down the deadly predator. Man versus Beast was also a big sub-genre in horror during the ‘70s, often times branching out with an ecological message or two. And then there’s Orca (1977), an ostensible Jaws cash-in that sacrifices suspense for weirdness, with a goofy earnestness that’s impossible not to like.
It also came with its own subtitle, The Killer Whale, lest you were unclear about Dino De Laurentis (King Kong ‘76)’s intentions; make no mistake, this film was sold as a terrifying thriller in every trailer and print ad. Released near the end of July by Paramount Pictures, Orca didn’t net Jaws’ grosses or respect, with many critics dismissing it as overwrought and ridiculous. Well, of course it is. It’s a film about a killer whale with a personal vendetta against a fisherman. It’s essentially Cape Fish.
Yes, they’re mammals, I know. Let’s open the throttle and see where we end up: Fishing boat Captain Nolan (Richard Harris – Unforgiven), his crew (including Bo Derek and Keenan Wynn), and their vessel, Bumpo, are at sea hoping to catch a great white shark alive to sell to an aquarium. Their plans are interrupted by marine biologist Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling – Angel Heart) and her assistant Ken (Robert Carradine – Revenge of the Nerds), who supposedly scare the shark away while scuba diving. Not so; the great white zeroes in on Ken, but he is miraculously saved when a killer whale (our real star of the film) drop kicks the shark before it has a chance to attack.
Changing his strategy, Nolan figures he can make way more money bagging an orca; the only problem is the pod is confusing, and he ends up harpooning the female instead of the male to his anguished cries. When Nolan hauls her in and strings her up her carcass (a harpoon to the belly reduces your chance of survival quite a bit), a fetus pops out dead onto the deck, all under the watchful eye of our finned friend. When Wynn washes the fetus back into the water, Nolan recoils in horror and has a flashback to when his wife and unborn child were killed in a car accident.
At this point Nolan wants little to do with the whale; he releases the female, who is given a funeral procession by the other whales (with pallbearers and everything!) as Nolan and his crew bear witness. Once back on land, his problems are just beginning; Orca (yes, I’m going to assign him a name – he deserves it) makes sure to destroy as much property and scare all the fish away that the townspeople make Nolan meet his adversary out in the open sea. Wracked with guilt and fear, he heads out with his crew (and Rampling. Oh, and Will Sampson as the Wise Native American comes along for some reason) to square off with Orca once and for all…
Yes, Orca is completely ridiculous. Not because of how it’s made, but simply the story itself. It would take Jaws: The Revenge ten years later for folks to fully appreciate the inanity of a creature seeking personal retribution for ill-doings against them. Of course, literature and film are littered with tales of retribution from the denizens of the animal kingdom. But by this point in the ‘70s we already knew many of the traits and behaviors of these creatures that only if they’re done extremely well can plausibility cross our minds. Orca certainly does not pass this test, but that’s not the angle the filmmakers are going for anyway; instead of focusing on the destruction that Orca causes, they hone in on why he needs preserving. It’s possibly one of the most humanist (whalist?) takes on horror of the decade.
It’s clear from the start that Nolan is the antagonist; ignorant of anything pertaining to whales, he gleefully sees nothing as much as dollar signs swirling around his fishing gear. His tune certainly changes upon seeing the fetus, however; triggered by his memories, he instantly feels a connection between himself and Orca. It’s really the only meaningful relationship in the film; everyone else is fodder.
That relationship is explained to us through a bizarre use of voiceover narration from Rampling’s character; Nolan himself says he’s conflicted, yet she insists on echoing his motives and thoughts – in case we were in the bathroom, I guess? As I said, Orca is very earnest in its mission to humanize the whales, even when it’s chomping legs down to bloody stumps.
It’s the film that wants to have its message while trying to entertain; I would certainly say the latter wins out because there are some gnarly deaths that justify the horror stamp while really doing nothing to convince the viewer that Orca should be spared. He definitely goes through a lot of people to get to Nolan, so I’m not sure his actions are completely justified.
Yet here we are (okay, me) discussing the moral implications of a whale’s behavior; this is what pushes Orca away from the crowd. But it’s set up this way: Ennio Morricone (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage)’s beautiful and melancholic score tugs at the heartstrings, even as the waters run red; Luciano Vincenzoni (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and Sergio Donati (The Chosen)’s screenplay aims for virtuous simplicity, and gets it. (Robert Towne was brought in uncredited for rewrites; I’m assuming for the dialogue scenes, which come across less awkward than other Italian adaptations.) Director Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run) gets a subdued performance from Harris, and Rampling suits the voice of calm and reason; perhaps they were left to their own devices so he could focus on getting sympathetic work from Orca himself. The poor guy has no choice; Anderson has so many POV shots from Orca and close ups of his eyes that it comes across more like National Geographic After Dark. (He peeps after Bo Derek; who can blame him?)
This is to say, naturally, that Orca is very entertaining. Just ignore the advertising and put that Spielberg film out of your mind; this film wants you to embrace and stand in awe of the beauty of nature. Just don’t stand too close to the docks. You may lose a limb or two.
Orca is available on Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE BOOGEY MAN (1980)