Terror Just Beneath the Surface.
Captain Nolan and his crew set out to sea in search of a killer whale that they can capture and sell to an aquarium. They manage to capture a pregnant female, but things go bad, and after suffering a graphic and disturbing miscarriage, she dies. Of all the interesting facts about killer whales that are bandied about in this film, there are two that are most important to the plot. (1) Killer whales are a monogamous species, and they remain with their mate for life. And (2) they tend to hold a grudge and have a penchant for seeking revenge. So when Nolan accidentally brings about the death of the female orca and her unborn child, her mate didn’t just lose two members of his species. He lost his entire family. It’s no wonder that he takes it personally and pursues a vendetta against the captain, unleashing a systematic method of torment in order to coax him into a head-to-head battle.
To call this a great movie would be an overstatement, but it’s nowhere near as bad as many reviews will have you believe. It does require a hefty amount of suspension of disbelief, but not more than your typical horror movie. It only seems that way as this is, ostensibly, a natural horror film and not a supernatural one, yet it doesn’t seem to operate under the rules of nature. And so, a whale who is able to respond to a tragedy in much the same way that Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson would comes across as much more ludicrous than, say, a child murderer who returns from the dead to claim more victims in their dreams.
As with far too many animal attack movies, this one gets lumped in as a JAWS rip-off, which is not entirely fair—but that is the curse of any such movie that followed in the wake of the great white shark. There are some similarities, of course, but ORCA is more of a spiritual successor to JAWS than a mere copy—or, perhaps, a Moby Dick in reverse. The icy setting for the final battle, though, has echoes of another literary classic: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In a way, the orca is the monster that Nolan created—not in a laboratory, but through his actions.
Years prior to the beginning of the film, Nolan’s pregnant wife was killed by a drunk driver. Once he got past seeing the orca as just another sea beast and realized that it was capable of the same emotions as man, he was overcome with guilt and grief over what he had done. Once upon a time, he had been the whale and a lush in an automobile had been the fisherman. Nolan, though, did not launch a crusade of vengeance like the whale did. In his own words, “He loved his family more than I loved mine!” While this is probably untrue, it is still heartbreaking to hear the sentiment. Although our sympathies initially lie with the whale, they gradually shift with Nolan’s emotional growth.
Of the other characters in the film, scientist Ken is the most one-dimensional. We know next to nothing about him and he doesn’t do much other than find himself in occasional jeopardy. The most interesting thing about his character is that he is first saved by the orca (he was the target of a shark attack thwarted by the whale’s arrival) and then destroyed by the orca. It’s like the new kid in school protecting you from the bully at recess so that he can beat you up after class.
Ken’s partner Rachel is something of a contradiction in that she studies the whales, presumably wants to protect them, and yet signs on for Nolan’s crusade against the vengeful orca anyway. She is repulsed by his quest, and yet drawn to his charisma. She finds his darkness attractive, but wants to be the light in his shadows. Even back in 1977, girls dug emo. Their romance is definite, but it is subtle, and does not comprise a prominent plot point. Rachel is a secondary character, but it is her that provides the narration, and this is her telling of another person’s tragedy.
Umilak is the flipside of the Ken & Rachel coin. Whereas they are the scientifically minded students of the whale, he is the spiritual student. He talks of the myth and legends behind the creature, and of Nolan’s responsibility to face it in mortal combat. He doesn’t like the idea of it, but he still believes it to be true, and enlists in hope of affecting a positive ending.
If a coin were to have three sides, the third would be local fisherman Alan Swain. He is not concerned with the science of the whale or the spirituality of the whale, he is only concerned with its real world applications. Nolan led the whale back to the village, and is thus responsible for the devastation it brought. It is therefore his obligation to stop it one way or another, not out of some mythological duty but rather a basic human one. Swain turns the other townsfolk against Nolan as a way to convince him of what needs to be done, and although Swain is sometimes painted as the villain, he is not. He is just trying to protect his people. Even Nolan harbors no ill will against him, admitting that he would do the same if he were in Swain’s position.
JAWS, MOBY DICK, and FRANKENSTEIN were all literary creations before being put to film, and ORCA is no different. The novel of the same name was published in 1977, the same year as the movie was released. It was written by author Arthur Herzog, who had also written the killer bee novel The Swarm, itself turned into a film in 1978. Arthur Herzog is technically Arthur Herzog III, and his father, Arthur Herzog Jr., was a songwriter and composer who popularly worked with Billie Holiday. ORCA was adapted by Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, both of whom had scripted a number of Italian crime and western films. Directorial duties went to Michael Anderson, who also brought us 1984 (1956), AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS (1956), and LOGAN’S RUN (1976, in which his son, actor Michael Anderson, Jr. played Doc).
Even those who revile ORCA (and there are plenty) tend to admit that the musical score by Ennio Morricone is pretty solid. It’s full of slow, haunting melodies that couldn’t be more different than the JAWS-derivative themes you might expect. Morricone contributed a number of scores to films written by Donati and Vincenzoni, including Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ trilogy, and went on to score many more films from ORCA’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis.
Dino De Laurentiis has a filmography that reads like the marquee of a cult movie marathon: cult classics like DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968), BARBARELLA (1968), FLASH GORDON (1980), CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), and CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984); macho favorites SERPICO (1973) and DEATH WISH (1974); the DEATH WISH derivative FIGHTING BACK (1982); animal flicks KING KONG (1976), KING KONG LIVES (1986), and THE WHITE BUFFALO (1977); horror movies HALOWEEN II (1981), HALLOWEEN III (1982), and ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992); Stephen King adaptations THE DEAD ZONE (1983), CAT’S EYE (1985), SILVER BULLET (1985), MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986), and SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK (1991); Hannibal Lecter films MANHUNTER (1986), HANNIBAL (2001), RED DRAGON (2002), and HANNIBAL RISING (2007); and well over a hundred others. God bless the man, he produced these types of films almost right up until his death in 2010. His granddaughter Giada is the host of EVERYDAY ITALIAN and other shows on Food Network, but I’d rather watch anything that he had a hand in.
Of the smaller roles in the film, the doomed Novak was played by the great and prolific character actor Keenan Wynn, who can also be found in the gangster comedy LOVE THAT BRUTE (1950), the noir-ish PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER (1952), motorcycle cop drama CODE TWO (1953), the claustrophobic cold war chiller SHACK OUT ON 101 (1955), the Hearst-inspired drama THE GREAT MAN (1956), DR. STRANGELOVE (1964), Joe Dante’s PIRANHA (1978), and roughly 270 other projects. Try throwing a rock and not hitting something he appeared in. At the time that ORCA was being filmed, Wynn was married to his third and final wife Sharley Hudson, aunt to the three members of the musical group The Hudson Brothers—one member of which, Bill Hudson, would later father Oliver and Kate Hudson with actress Goldie Hawn. Taking into account that Keenan’s father was Ed Wynn, and his grandfather was Frank Keenan, I think it’s safe to say that show business runs in the family.
Ken was played by Robert Carradine, who appeared in many films (including the remake of HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP and CANNONBALL), but will forever be known as Lewis Skolnick in the REVENGE OF THE NERDS franchise. Annie was played by Bo Derek (in her first film role), and is mostly here to suffer leg trauma after leg trauma. She would achieve real fame in 1979 when she appeared in the film “10”, playing Dudley Moore’s ideal mate, and has cropped up as the Sexy Blonde routinely ever since. Umilak was played by Creek Nation actor Will Sampson, who also appeared in THE WHITE BUFFALO, and is most well-known for his parts in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975) and POLTERGEIST II (1986). The semi-villainous Swain was played by Scott Walker, who had appeared in the previously-mentioned THE WHITE BUFFALO, DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE (1975), and would later hunt frogs in THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979), following which he disappeared from the business. The IMDb has him listed as appearing in the 1993 pornographic film DOG WALKER, but the credit seems dubious at best and isn’t found in other adult-dedicated databases. Further information about the man is lost in an endless sea of Google results related to Scott Walker the politician and Scott Walker the musician.
Our heroine (of sorts), Rachel, was played by Charlotte Rampling, who started acting in 1965 and continues to this day. She has appeared in favorites such as VANISHING POINT (1971), ASYLUM (1972), ZARDOZ (1974), THE NIGHT PORTER (1974), ANGEL HEART (1987), and the eighth season of DEXTER (2013). She was famously involved in a menage a trois relationship with Bryan Southcombe, who appeared in Andy Milligan’s 1972 THE MAN WITH TWO HEADS (and later became her husband and manager) and male model Randall Laurence—though the sexual nature of this relationship may have been largely embellished by the gossip press. She later married French composer Jean Michel Jarre, and was engaged to Jean-Noël Tassez, a wealthy French communications businessman, until his death in 2015, though they never actually married. She has published her autobiography, Qui Je Suis (Who I Am) in French, but it has not been made available in English.
And finally, our hero Nolan was played by Irish actor Richard Harris, who can also be found in CAMELOT (1967 and 1982, both times as King Arthur), GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (1977, as Gulliver), the post-apocalyptic RAVAGERS (1979), TARZAN THE APE MAN (1981, with Bo Derek), and HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2001) and HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002) as Dumbledore. He also recorded numerous albums (both musical and spoken, receiving four Grammy nominations and one win) and published a book of poetry. After his death in 2002, two statues of Harris were erected—one in Kilkee, Ireland which depicts him playing squash (in his younger days, Harris was a record-breaking squash player); and one in his hometown of Limerick, depicting him in his role of King Arthur in 1967’s CAMELOT. Not bad for an actor who welcomed controversy with his endorsement of the Irish Republican Army. From 1974-1982, he was married to actress Ann Turkel, famously from 1980’s HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP.
ORCA did manage to turn a profit, but it was still not considered a box office success. They never made a sequel, which is probably for the best—I’m not sure that the world could have handled it—but ironically, when JAWS 4: THE REVENGE came out in 1987, it featured a shark that behaved very much like the whale did here.
So really, who’s ripping off who?