Orca (Aka: Orca: The Killer Whale) is a damn odd 1977 creature feature directed by Michael Anderson and produced by Dino De Laurentiis, that was designed to cash-in on the success of Jaws. Where Steven Spielberg’s movie is a character driven, suspense movie, Orca is all over the shop; veering between such themes of environmentalism, horror and revenge. Furthermore the revenge in question is exacted by the titular whale against Richard Harris. It’s sort of a reverse Moby Dick situation. Ponder that for a moment. This is a movie about a whale getting even. Make no mistake, this is a cinematic mess, yet because of its European production credentials it is still morbidly fascination.
Disgruntled fisherman Nolan (Richard Harris) dreams of leaving Nova Scotia and returning back to Ireland. After watching a presentation by marine biologist Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), he and his crew set off to bag an Orca in the hope that they can sell it to a theme park or aquarium. Unfortunately the plan to harpoon the whale in the dorsal fin and secure it, goes awry, resulting in a pregnant female being injured. In a very distressing scene, she is caught in the harpoon cable and mutilated by the ships propeller. As the crew winch her on-board she aborts her unborn calf, as her mate looks on.
This opening gambit is hard hitting, exploitative and as subtle as flatulence in a library. Within minutes the movie lurches from montages of capering whales set to a beautiful Ennio Morricone score, to blood and mayhem. Needless to say that the whale subsequently terrorises the fishing town until Nolan decides to fight like a man (or should that be whale) and face justice for his crime. For those curious as to how a whale, a conspicuously sea based mammal manages to achieve this, he sinks all the boats moored, blows up the fuel depot (he bloody does to, look at the damn picture!) and even manages to bite off the leg of one of Nolan’s crew (Bo Derek). All these acts of vengeance are punctuated by close up shots of the whale’s eye as he give the Cetacean equivalent of Paddington’s “hard stare”.
So in the final act, Nolan, Dr. Bedford, Miss One Leg’s boyfriend (Peter Hooten) and the ubiquitous wise Native American Jacob Umilak (Will Sampson) give chase to the vengeful whale as it leads them in to the frozen waters off the coast of Labrador. Cue some personal introspection by Harris and obligatory words of wisdom from Umilak. Let is suffice to say that as this is a movie from the seventies and film makers felt less disposed towards mandatory happy endings, so things do not go well in the human cast in the denouement. Viewers less familiar with movies from this genre and time period may well be left bewildered and confused by the abrupt but valedictory nature of the ending. I will stop short of declaring it a WTF moment because you could level that criticism about the films entire premise.
Like Jaws two years before, Orca was marketed at a similar audience. Both movies contain a level of violence and unpleasantness that would not be present in equivalent movies today, or at least not within the PG rating. Free Willy this is not. I saw this movie as a child, a few years after its release. It left a big impression upon me mainly due to the impact of the opening scenes. I certainly would not recommend the movie today as family viewing. However despite the insane premise, the stilted dialogue and hard boiled performances, there is still a thread of drama and pathos running through the proceedings. It’s heavy handed and unsophisticated but it’s there; along with the blood, the mayhem and the hateful gaze from the prosthetic whale eye.
The optical and prosthetic effects are quite good for the time. The distinct black and white colour of the Orca works in the favour of the full sized models that are used. The studio bound frozen finale, filmed in the water tanks of the Mediterranean Film Studios in Malta, is no better or worse than what you’d find in Ice Station Zebra or a comparable movie. As previously mentioned the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone covers a lot of ills. Richard Harris gives an honest performance and his commanding screen presence also helps viewers excuse the overall absurdity of the proceedings. Returning to my point about European productions of this nature, they always adopt a more bombastic and strident tone than their US counterparts. In some respects it is part of their schtick and overall appeal. Orca typifies this and if such things float your boat (crap pun intended) then this is a rather unique example of the natural horror sub-genre (and yes, that is a thing).