Orca, the Killer Whale (1977)
It began they say, because Dino De Laurentiis wanted “a fish bigger than a shark”. It was 1976, Jaws had been a smash hit, and the Italian producer was eager to get a piece of the action. So they thought about an orca.
And they shot **Orca, the Killer Whale.”
It doesn’t matter that orcas are not whales.
Nor fish, either.
… and it’s Orchinus orca, not Orca orchinus – and it does not mean bringer of death in Latin.
Anyway, I re-watched this movie two nights back.
Only the following morning did I find out that director Michael Anderson had died. Strange coincidence.
I watched Orca because I’m writing a sea monster novel, one featuring a big killer cetacean, and therefore I decided to go back to the classics. I first saw this movie in the late ‘70s, in an open-air cinema while I was on vacation by the seaside.
It scared me witless.
The fact that I was 11 or 12 at the time, that I couldn’t swim and that my father was obsessing over the idea of packing me off to the Naval academy as soon as possible – because I was a weakling and they would make a man out of me and other such things1 – anyway, the whole mix made Orca a damn scary movie, for me.
The plot in a nutshell: captain Nolan (Richard Harris) is deep in debt and catches animals for aquariums for a living. A hunting mishap causes the death of a female orca, and the miscarriage of her pup. The mate of the dead orca proceeds to extract a devastating revenge on Nolan and his shipmates.
The first word that comes to my mind to describe this movie is bleak. This is a product of the ‘70s, and if it is true that it was a quick-and-dirty job to cash-in on the success of Jaws, it’s also true that the script touches on a number of real issues of the time, such as the economic crisis and the plight of the fishermen in the North Atlantic.
Nolan is a man that lost his wife and child in a car accident, and now does a dirty job to pay his debts. He actually empathises with the orca, which makes the whole thing more tragic. This is a war between two damaged individuals, thrashing against each other and circumstances beyond their control.
The cast is excellent: Richard Harris lends a lot of pathos to Nolan, and Charlotte Rampling is beautiful and believable as a marine biologist trying to sort the mess out. Bo Derek (at her screen debut), Keenan Wynn, Robert Carradine (in his pre-Revenge of the Nerds youth) and Will Sampson round up the crew.
Then, yes, there is the menace of a smart, intelligent and big marine predator, hell-bent on making the humans pay. The thing actually chomps off one of Bo Derek’s shapely legs. Two orcas from an aquarium and a sophisticated animatronic play the part of the killer whale.
The movie was not a success, in my opinion because the production played too much the card of “Jaws pumped up to eleven”, with the whole “bringer of death” rubbish and the sensationalist hype – Orca could have been a hard-hitting, socially-savvy and intimate drama, a fine example of “nature horror”, and it would have worked just fine.
It remains a fine movie, and it scared me witless as a kid.