Following the massive success of Jaws (1975), several ‘man vs nature’ films were rushed into production to capitalize on Spielberg’s formula. From giant octopi to man-eating bears, Hollywood left few stones unturned in a bid to scare audiences back indoors to the multiplexes. In some cases, celebrated actors rushed to sign on to these film, many of which seemed questionable, perhaps assuming they’d be starring in the next Jaws. As part of our continuing EcoHorror series for the first week of spring, it’s time to revisit a little film called Orca (1977). Featuring not one but two Oscar-nominated performers, Orca is arguably the most shameful ripoff of Jaws.
When local fisherman Captain Nolan kills a female killer whale and her unborn baby, he inadvertently incurs the wrath of her mate. The killer whale follows Nolan’s ship back to port and tries to lure the guilty ship captain back out to sea. The grieving orca sinks every fishing boat but Nolan’s vessel, he breaks gas lines, and attacks Nolan’s crew members’ living on a boathouse. Despite the warnings of marine biologist Rachel Bedford, Nolan finally relents and sails out to sea for a final confrontation with the orca.
The Stephen Hawking of Killer Whales
Like many EcoHorror films, Orca rests on a pretty contrived premise. Oscar-winning actress, Charlotte Rampling’s marine biologist, Rachel Bedford, is on hand to constantly remind the audience that the orca mates for life, demonstrating the range of human emotions including vengeance. Director Michael Anderson treats you to multiple close-ups of the orca’s eye to remind us just how angry he is with Captain Nolan. The film’s screenplay has the orca performing increasingly implausible acts to taunt Nolan back out to sea. In perhaps the film’s most over-the-top moment, the orca sinks the boathouse belonging to one of Nolan’s crew members, and bites off the leg of the girlfriend played by 1970s poster girl, Bo Derek. Like Hollywood’s vision of what hackers can do with that “Internet thing”, Orca’s screenplay plays hard and fast with the idea that killer whales are intelligent.
“What The Hell Are You?”
While Orca is convoluted and more than a little melodramatic, it’s an utterly watchable film. In addition, it’s often a beautifully photographed film with impressive wide-lens shots of the small fishing village, the expansive ocean, and later in the film, cold arctic waters. Okay, some of the icebergs are clearly props, but those are minor quibbles. Not quite on the same level as Jaws, the orca still makes for an imposing figure in the film and the special effects are certainly more than adequate for this type of horror movie. We get a couple of good surprises – do not lean over the side of a boat – and the film’s final face-off between Nolan and the killer whale offers an appropriately tragic ending.
Richard Harris carries the film when it’s stuck on land. His performance is clearly bigger than this low-budget ‘creature feature’ and the only real criticism is that he’s almost so much better than the material in the screenplay that at times it’s like he’s acting in a completely different film. When Nolan screams at the orca, “What the hell are you?”, you can’t help but stifle a small laugh. But Harris is absolutely convincing in his delivery. Rampling is a good actress and fine with the material she’s given, but Orca doesn’t require her to do much other than serve up the requisite expository dialogue.
Orca is most clearly dated by its 1970s adult-lite jazz score. If you’ve watched a lot of 1970s films, you’ll immediately recognize the type of music to which I’m referring. Personally, I don’t find the music distracting despite its generic nature; it’s all a part of Orca’s 1970s charm.
As Long As You Know What You’re Getting
Much of my fondness for Orca is rooted in pure nostalgia. It was a film that popped up frequently on Sunday afternoons when I was a kid. It’s a competently made, if not obviously derivative, film that will appeal to a small range of audiences. Too slow for younger audiences and probably too melodramatic for viewers who prefer more “serious” horror films, Orca makes for perfect late-night B-movie fare. It’s not the best example of the 1970s EcoHorror genre but it has enough moments to make it worthwhile for more discerning horror fans.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C+