WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS!
With success comes imitators, as was very much the case with JAWS (a film that admittedly gets mentioned a lot on this site). Some films blatantly ripped-off Spielberg’s mega-hit (e.g. THE LAST SHARK, CRUEL JAWS), while others copied the template and inserted a different kind of animal (e.g. PIRANHA, ALLIGATOR, GRIZZLY, et al.). But there is one film that has been unfairly lumped together with JAWS copycats, and that is the Dino DeLaurentiis-produced ORCA: THE KILLER WHALE. Don’t agree? Well read onward, and perhaps by the end of this review you’ll change your mind.
ORCA features Sir Richard Harris as Captain Nolan, a fishermen with a get-rich-quick scheme of capturing a live Great White Shark and selling it off to an aquarium. However, during his attempt at harpooning his quarry, an Orca suddenly appears and kills the shark, saving Dr. Bedford’s assistant Ken in the process. (This is clearly a jab at JAWS, which Universal would respond to the following year in JAWS 2.) His meal ticket gone, Nolan then sets his sights on capturing himself a killer whale for a quick buck. After charming some information out of whale expert Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), Nolan and his crew head out to bag themselves an Orca.
What follows is easily one of the most horrifying sequences in cinematic history, and instantly transforms this PG-Rated adventure into an exploitation film! Nolan fires his harpoon gun at a large male Orca, but botches the shot. The projectile nicks the dorsal fin of the bull, and instead buries itself deep within the hide of his mate. As the injured killer whale shrieks in pain, the crew reels her in and hoists her out of the water…. AND THEN IT HAPPENS. For the first (and hopefully last) time in the history of film, we witness a killer whale miscarriage!
As the female Orca hangs from a winch, A FETUS BURSTS OUT OF HER AND FALLS TO THE DECK! Disgusted, Nolan washes it overboard with a hose, as the male Orca looks on and shrieks in anguish. This is the precise moment in the film where ORCA sheds the rip-off label given to it by most critics, and morphs into a revenge thriller that has more in common with DEATH WISH than it does with JAWS.
Nolan eventually dumps the female back into the ocean after her mate attacks the ship from below, and loses a crew member named Novak (Keenan Wynn) in the process. As he heads to the nearest port for repairs, Nolan is pursued by the grief-stricken marine mammal. Leaving its pod behind, the vengeful Orca pushes its mate’s corpse into the harbor where Nolan’s ship is anchored, and beaches it as a calling card. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, because things continue to escalate as the Orca terrorizes the little seaside village in an attempt to force Nolan into a final showdown.
Eventually Nolan has no choice but to accept the Orca’s challenge, and heads out to sea with his shipmate Paul (Peter Hooten), Dr. Bedford, Ken (Robert Carradine!), and a spiritual Native American Orca expert named Jacob Umilak (Will Sampson)! As they follow their aquatic foe into increasingly icier waters, they prepare for their duel with the vengeance-fueled cetacean. Will their combined knowledge and skills be enough to defeat the killer whale, or will the fury of Mother Nature prove to be too much for mankind’s ingenuity? Watch ORCA to find out!
Though it is impossible to not compare ORCA to JAWS, I think doing so is a disservice to Michael Anderson’s film. Both movies may feature aquatic terrors, but the Great White in JAWS is merely an obstacle that a trio of heroes must overcome in order to save their small island community. The story is less about the shark, and more about the relationships being built between Brody, Hooper, and Quint. In ORCA, the killer whale is a full-fledged character that you can sympathize with, which changes things immensely.
Essentially, the plot boils down to “anguished widower exacts vigilante justice on the people responsible for the death of his wife and child.” (i.e. DEATH WISH.) But it isn’t entirely easy to side with the Orca, because Captain Nolan isn’t really a villain. He’s an emotionally complex character, masquerading as a callous blue-collar man that is working to pay off the mortgage on his boat. Though he appears to lack any concern about South Harbor’s sudden “Orca problem,” you can tell that he is experiencing an internal struggle.
As we learn later in the film, Nolan does indeed feel guilty for killing the Orca’s mate and offspring. (They are, more or less, the figurative albatross hanging around his neck.) In fact, he is haunted by what he has done, and empathizes with the creature. This is because years earlier, Nolan had lost his wife and unborn child in a collision with a drunk driver. So Nolan truly knows how his nemesis feels, and even goes as far to say that he is the Orca’s “drunk driver.”
Once this is brought to light, you begin to realize that both he and the orca are both victims of circumstance. But as intelligent as the killer whale proves to be, there’s just no way Nolan can reason with it, or explain his sorrow, so their eventual confrontation is unavoidable. Even more so when Nolan, and the crew of the Bumpo, find that the superstitious locals have cut off their escape inland. (There’s not a gas station for miles that will sell them fuel for their truck.)
Speaking of Nolan’s crew, the majority of them are fated to be killed or maimed by the movie’s seabound vigilante. But wow, what a cast! This movie has Keenan Wynn (PIRANHA, LASERBLAST, THE DARK), Peter Hooten (one of the original INGLORIOUS BASTARDS and also the original DR. STRANGE!), Bo Derek (before she hit it big in “10”), Robert Carradine (the REVENGE OF THE NERDS franchise, BODY BAGS), Will Sampson (POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE, THE WHITE BUFFALO), and Charlotte Rampling (ANGEL HEART, ASYLUM, ZARDOZ)!
This roster of actors provides support for Sir Richard Harris’ Captain Nolan, who does all he can to avoid paying penance for killing an apex predator’s lifemate. Even as pressure mounts from the locals after the whale ruins their livelihoods, and causes an unbelievable amount of property damage, Nolan refuses to budge. What ultimately causes him to act is the sequence where Bo Derek’s Annie loses a leg. Foolishly believing that the Orca would eventually go away, Nolan’s inaction results in the severe mutilation of an innocent party. This causes him to snap and finally face the “revengeful son of a bitch!”
Amazing cast aside, the Orca itself is the real star of the film, and was brought to life via a combination of methods, including footage of real killer whales (filmed in captivity), as well as miniatures and a full size replica. It’s all very well done (even the frequently reused composite shot of the Orca doing a “victory leap” out of the water looks pretty good), and helps maintain your suspension of disbelief as the movie plays out. (You will believe a killer whale can be a demolition expert!)
And what ties everything together is Ennio Morricone’s brilliant soundtrack. Aside from the traumatizing “orcabortion” scene, ORCA’s music is the other thing people remember the most about the film. Morricone’s main theme is equal parts haunting and beautiful, and helps lend a real emotional punch to the movie. Without it, I doubt ORCA would work as well as it does, and I think we all owe Ennio Morricone a debt of gratitude for that.
ORCA: THE KILLER WHALE sadly never found an audience back in 1977, and that’s probably because it doesn’t play by the same rules as JAWS and its ilk. The roles of man and beast are interchanged: The Orca is the victim, and its quest for revenge is totally warranted. That alone probably messed with audience expectations, because moviegoers likely anticipated a film about a murderous killer whale that would somehow be obliterated at the climax by a hero. What they got instead was revenge thriller where the majority of the human characters don’t come out on top. That must have been jarring to say the least.
ORCA did well (fifteen million in ticket sales on a six million dollar budget) but didn’t become the major financial success that DeLaurentiis hoped it would be. On top that, the movie got panned by many critics (most writing it off as a JAWS cash-in), and even today it maintains a 15% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. But after forty years, it seems that ORCA has secured itself a strong cult following, and is starting to pull itself out from JAWS’ shadow. Here’s hoping that more people discover ORCA, or at the very least give it a second chance, because this movie definitely deserves more love.
Hailing from an era of JAWS clones, ORCA: THE KILLER WHALE offers up a much different experience, and has cemented itself as the “DEATH WISH of killer animal cinema!” This film easily gets a recommendation from yours truly, and is more than deserving of:
Packaging: ORCA comes in a standard (Ozzie) Blu-ray amaray case with the film’s original poster art. If you do not like the rating classification on the bottom left of the cover, you can flip the sleeve over for a slightly retooled version of the same cover art. I should also note that although it says the disc is “Region B” on the back of the cover, this is a region free disc, as is usually the case with Umbrella releases!
Audio & Video: In a time where most studios are raiding their vaults to bolster their Blu-ray catalogs, it’s a shame that Paramount has made no effort to cater to us ORCA fans. In 2004 they gave us a decent, bare bones DVD that finally showcased the film in widescreen for the first time. But thirteen years later, it took an Australian label to give ORCA the love it truly deserves! (Thank you Umbrella Entertainment!)
The movie is presented in a 2.35:1 widescreen ratio and it looks great! After comparing it to Paramount’s (now out of print) DVD, I can assure you that this transfer is a huge step up. And as an added bonus, the disc comes complete with both 5.1 DTS and (lossless) Mono audio options. The new HD transfer and 5.1 mix are much appreciated upgrades – ORCA has never looked or sounded so good!
Special Features: Along with the original theatrical trailer, we get a very short interview with Martha De Laurentiis entitled MOBY DICK ala DE LAURENTIIS. Sadly there’s not much meat to it, but that’s mainly because Martha was not present during the production of ORCA. Still, she does shed a little light on her late husband and his devotion to creating quality films, and does a great impression of Dino mulling over the possibility of a KING KONG VS. ORCA film.
Also included is an audio commentary track by film historian Lee Gambin, author of Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film and Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo. I’ve listened to many commentaries over the years and many suffer from the same problem: The commentator (and in some cases the moderator as well) gets caught up watching the film, leading to large stretches of silence. That is not the case here!
Lee’s commentary track is a great addition to this release, and moves along at a breakneck pace. From start to finish, he bombards you with a steady stream of information about the film, its cast & crew, and various other titles in the ecological Horror subgenre. Like myself, he views ORCA as a 70s revenge film rather than a knock-off of JAWS, and shows some genuine love for the movie. His overall enthusiasm for ORCA definitely results in one of the better commentaries I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to.
Final Verdict: Chalk up another win for Umbrella Entertainment Vault Dwellers! The audio and video presentation of the film is wonderful, and Lee Gambin’s commentary is top-notch. I would have liked more interviews on the disc (a discussion with Charlotte Rampling would have been very welcome), or even a gallery of stills and posters, but as it stands, Umbrella’s Blu-ray of ORCA is a worthwhile investment, and receives a rating of: