A tale of vengeance and seaside misadventure, Orca (1977, dir. Michael Anderson) isn’t exactly a party at the beach, but it is definitely a very unique viewing experience. Orca tells the story of Captain Nolan (Richard Harris), who captures wild marine animals to sell them to aquariums, to pay off the mortgage for his boat and eventual return to native Ireland. When Captain Nolan learns that he can earn a pretty penny for capturing a killer whale, he attempts to capture a wild male orca. However, when attempting to harpoon the massive beast, he mistakenly kills the mate of a male orca. This male orca then identifies Captain Nolan as his mate’s killer, and seeks vengeance for this unholy crime, targeting Captain Nolan, his colleagues, and the locals in his town with the instincts of a killer. Captain Nolan is assisted in this conundrum by whale expert Dr Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), whose knowledge of whale psychology assist Captain Nolan to understand the orca better.
This film might not take place at the beach for the entire thing, but when I first heard of the Beach Party Blogathon, I knew I had to watch and review it. Some may say that Orca is a bit of a Jaws (1975) ripoff, which I can almost understand given the fact that the story contains a faceoff between a surly man who lives by the seaside (whether he’s a fisherman or a police officer), and his nemesis – a great beast of the sea. It just so happens that one is a shark, and one is a killer whale. In both films, the surly seaside man takes off into the seas to confront his oceanic opponent, resulting in a pretty bad situation for the crew of the boat. But that’s almost where the comparisons end. If anything, Jaws: The Revenge (1987) is a ripoff of this. And Jaws: The Revenge is an objectively terrible film. But I digress. This film is crazy, with an unpredictable and fairly chaotic story. For example, who knew an orca could set things on fire? But that’s all part of the fun, particularly if you like cheesy films from the 70s.
Dino De Laurentiis is one of those filmmakers who you either love or hate. He works as the producer on this, with Michael Anderson taking the directing reins, but this film fully feels like a De Laurentiis production with its grandiose feel. Anderson’s direction is nice, but there is one moment that is definitely Jaws-inspired; a crash zoom on Captain Nolan’s face that is clearly meant to imitate the iconic scene from Jaws. The cinematography by J. Barry Herron and Tom Moore (who worked on a number of the earlier James Bond films if I remember correctly) is also quite good. What is the absolute best about Orca, however, is its score by Ennio Morricone – a 70s masterpiece, which is both creepy and beautiful at the same time, very much suiting its subject matter.
Richard Harris’ performance in Orca as lead man Captain Nolan is really not good. He wanders around a non-committal fashion, even though his character’s backstory is a nice tie-in to his current predicament facing his killer whale nemesis. I like Richard Harris as an actor, but this is not his best work. Meanwhile, Charlotte Rampling is quite great as scientist Dr Rachel Bedford, with her quiet rage at Captain Nolan for harming the female orca brimming beneath her professional surface. Charlotte Rampling was probably the performance highlight for me.
There are some awkward moments in this film though, because the rubber figures used for the orcas do look really lifelike, so much so that some of the violent scenes are difficult to watch because it looks like real animals are being harmed. And indeed, back when the film was released, the production was stalled by animal rights organisations such as PETA, who thought the rubber orcas were real and blocked the trucks transporting them. Another awkward thing about the film is the brief moments of voiceover, which occur in an unpredictable and seemingly random manner, as Dr Rachel Bedford shares some insights into whale psychology and how she thinks the battle of wits between man and orca might end up.
Ultimately, I didn’t have too high expectations going in to watch this, and I think that’s the best way to watch it. People told me it was schlocky and silly, which it was at times. But it has some nice direction and an amazing film score by Ennio Morricone, and a surprisingly great performance by Charlotte Rampling. It’s corny and cheesy and the perfect film to watch if you want a semi-horror film that doesn’t take too much of a brain investment, but is also surprisingly effective at tugging on the heartstrings.
Watch the trailer here.