Following the massive success of Jaws, studios rushed several ‘man vs nature’ movies into production. Not surprisingly, producers saw dollars signs as they capitalized on Spielberg’s formula. From giant octopi to man-eating bears, Hollywood left few stones unturned in a bid to scare up ticket sales. What was surprising was the number of celebrated actors who rushed to sign on to these movies. Maybe they had dreams of a breakthrough starring role in the next Jaws. Too bad most of these 1970’s eco-horror movies were not Jaws. But if any eco-horror movie from the era had a chance of finding the same success, it was Orca. Another big fish (okay, mammal), Oscar-nominated actors – Orca had to be good, right?
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.
Orca is the Death Wish of the Ocean
Like many eco-horror movies, Orca rests on a pretty contrived premise. Yes, orcas are just like people – they mate for life. And Oscar-winning actress, Charlotte Rampling’s marine biologist, Rachel Bedford, seems to only be in the movie to constantly remind us of this fact. So what Orca gives us is Death Wish in the ocean with a killer whale substituting for Charles Bronson. It’s every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. Yet director Michael Anderson takes it all very seriously. For example, Orca treats audiences to multiple close-ups of the orca’s enraged eyes. Cue the dramatic music.
It’s every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. Yet director Michael Anderson takes it all very seriously.
Italian writers Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati give the orca increasingly implausible acts of vengeance. Keep in mind, all of this is basically a throwdown to taunt Nolan back out to sea. In perhaps the movie’s most over-the-top moment, the orca sinks a crew member’s boathouse. The scene culminates with the killer whale biting off 1970s poster girl Bo Derek’s leg off. By the time you make it to the climax, you’ll totally believe a killer whale would tip an iceberg to swallow up a character like an oyster. Or you’ll be too busy laughing to care.
Orca Circles Melodrama against a Beautiful Backdrop
While Orca is convoluted and more than a little melodramatic, it’s also very watchable. In fact, Anderson beautifully shoots his oceanside community and great big sea. Everything looks rather breathtaking. 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. Moreover, the special effects are certainly more than adequate for this type of horror movie. Orca delivers some decent jolts – do not lean over the side of a boat – and the final face-off between Nolan and the killer whale feels appropriately tragic ending. But that 1970s adult-lite jazz score dates the movie though some might consider it part of Orca’s charm.
If there’s a real criticism it’s that Harris is so much better than the material that it’s like he’s acting in a completely different movie.
In spite of its silly concept, the cast plays it like its Shakespeare. Richard Harris carries things when the movie is stuck on land. His performance is clearly bigger than this low-budget ‘nature strikes back’ thriller. If there’s a real criticism it’s that Harris is so much better than the material that it’s like he’s acting in a completely different movie. 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. Rampling is a good actress and fine with the material, but Orca doesn’t require her to do much other than serve up expository dialogue.
Orca Sails The Seas of Warm Nostalgia
Much horror fans’ fondness for Orca is probably rooted in pure nostalgia. If you grew up in the 1970’s 1980’s, this was a movie that popped up frequently on Sunday afternoon television. It’s a competently made, if not obviously derivative, movie 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 movies, Orca makes for perfect late-night B-movie fare. While it’s not the best example of the 1970s eco-horror genre there’s enough moments to make it worthwhile for more discerning horror fans.