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The F*cking Black Sheep: Orca (1977)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

ORCA (1977)

DIRECTED BY MICHAEL ANDERSON

Goddamn, August already? Sheesh. Let us ask then, how many of you have seen JAWS already this summer? JAWS 2? Good God don’t tell me you watched JAWS 3D? No, no you didn’t? JAWS 4? Stop. Now I know you’re lying!

Listen up though. Given the gargantuan spawn of killer shark/fish flicks bottom-feeding in the massive wake of the OG blockbuster, JAWS, one flick I always thought got lazily lumped with the others is Michael Anderson’s ORCA. Sure, the film was Dino De Laurentiis’ attempt to follow up KING KONG, which itself was a response to Spielberg’s seafaring masterstroke. Yes, there is a gratuitous shark scene to open ORCA in which a killer whale bleeds a great-white toothy bastard to death with a single deathblow (no doubt a shot at JAWS, a shot cheekily reciprocated in JAWS 2 when a shark is seen masticating an orca carcass). Yes, there’s a dude in ORCA who has the same gorgeous Dick Dreyfuss afro and scruffy beard. But honestly, that is where the similarities end. I’m not saying there’d be an ORCA without JAWS, but based on its own meritorious story, ORCA deserves its own classification.

I’ll do one further. ORCA is an outright F*cking Black (and white?) Sheep even as a standalone horror movie as well, regardless of its perceived piggybacked exploitation of JAWS. With a solid director in Michael Anderson, an above average cast including Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling and Robert Carradine, a genuinely heart-wrenching and compelling dramatic story, and a handful of indelibly scarifying imagery, ORCA remains a supremely slept on horror flick!

Written by Sergio Donati (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST), Luciano Vincenzoni (RAW DEAL), and an uncredited Robert Towne (CHINATOWN) ORCA was directed by British filmmaker Michael Anderson one year after he made LOGAN’S RUN. That’s some follow up! The story of ORCA tracks Captain Nolan (Harris), a whaler intent on impressing Rachel Bedford (Rampling) by capturing a living great-white shark to study. The opening sequence treats us to a brutal clash between the Orca (killer whale) and a great-white half its size. Immediately after, we get a scientific presentation by Rachel that would make every Nature Channel enthusiast perk right the f*ck up. Seriously, the things we learn about the Killer Whale are downright fascinating, just from a purely scientific viewpoint. That the whales can communicate across many seas with their echolocation sonar, that they have immense brain-sizes and capacity to emote, and remember a person’s face for years…these tidbits and fin factoids instantly engage us in what is inevitable to follow.

We all ridicule to no end the hilarious revenge angle in JAWS 4, and with good reason. But in ORCA, the same damn scenario is afoot, and because the Orca really can exact revenge, even holding grudges for years in the process, remembering the face of his perpetrator for years (the only other animal on the planet besides humans to do so), the story becomes far more credible, and therefore much more enthralling. So when Captain Nolan accidentally kills a pregnant female whale, her mate goes absolutely berserk on the man and all of his accomplices.

But here’s where ORCA hugely differentiates from JAWS. In JAWS, we all root for the shark to die. Very cut and dry. In ORCA, by contrast, audience sympathy clearly lies with the wronged killer whale. This is unimaginably reinforced by the film’s most scarring image – that of a female whale miscarrying fetuses on the ship’s deck! It’s one of the most disturbing images I’ve ever laid eyes on in any movie ever, and directly informs our decision to side with the whale rather than the heinous human who dare do such a thing. The heart-wrenching horrors of what the killer whale endures strikes right to the heart of our condition as humans. Bolstering the emotional heft of the drama is Ennio Morricone’s brilliantly understated score, one that weeps with a soft, sympathetic lilt that tugs at the heartstrings rather than preys on the fear.

Of course, where ORCA elevates to an even higher degree of drama is in Captain Nolan’s torment over killing the whale. At first he is clearly designated as the bad guy, with the whale being the good guy. But as the movie progresses, Nolan shows authentic compunction, regret and dismay. Meanwhile, the whale becomes angrier and more homicidal. So by the time we get to that chilly arctic-like finale, we’ve reached a confounding gray area where Nolan has become more honorable and Orca more detestable. We’re left with not quite knowing who to root for, which lends for a really exciting, unpredictable showdown in the end. I love that subtlety. I also absolutely adore that Anderson had the balls to let Nolan die, as she should have, as he deserved to. If one bad turn deserves another, than goddamn it, Nolan needed to pay for his unnecessary sin.

Moreover, I refuse to believe that the Orca dies in the end, as many people have posited. I get that the whale is stuck under sheets of frozen ice and is implied to never resurface, but goddamn it, I just can’t buy that. If we don’t see it onscreen, we can’t assume it to be true. Therefore, since I’m so emotionally invested in the Orca’s vengeance, whenever I see the flick I choose to believe he found egress and swam off into the sunset. Eternal optimism over here. F*ck FREE WILLY, See ORCA!

Another thing I always dug about ORCA is how its horrific aspects aren’t reliant on the whale’s physicality, but rather its mentality. The intelligence of the whale is its greatest asset, and therefore its sharpest weapon. Aside from poor Lewis Skulnick getting gulped out of midair and chomped whole by the majestic beast, most of Orca’s vengeful action comes by way of his big old brain. Orca uses its intelligence to start a dockside fire, and constantly knocks around the primary vessel (nicknamed Bumpy mind you) around so to cause to breach and eventually sink.

To this end, there is some really terrific underwater sequences featured in the film, much of it lifted from Marine World in Redwood City, California (I see you 650!), but the rest of it filmed in Malta with the use of an animatronic whale. The interwoven footage feels authentic, and despite being over four decades old now, the FX still hold serve quite convincingly. This is largely due to the splendid work of DP J. Berry Heron, who specialized in filming such underwater sequences as that in JASON LIVES, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and many others. Ted Moore, who shot the first handful of 007 flicks, lensed the remaining land sequences.

In aggregation, ORCA has netted inhumane treatment over the years. That’s pretty ironic for a movie that ultimately advocates for the preservation of marine life, not the eradication of it. Sure ORCA was likely made in response to the unthinkable popularity of JAWS, but to call it a mere JAWS knockoff is inaccurate at best, reductively dismissive at worst. The movie features heartbreaking drama, unflinching imagery, solid direction and acting chops, a nuanced dynamic in the relation of protagonist/antagonist, and a powerfully bleak (but just) 70s-style ending. If nothing else, ORCA makes one come away with a greater appreciation for the majesty of killer whales!

STREAM ORCA HERE

GET ORCA ON DVD HERE

GET ORCA ON BLU-RAY HERE

Extra Tidbit: Do you think ORCA is better than JAWS 2?
Source: AITH

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