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ORCA (1977)

"You want revenge? Well, you’ll have it! I’ll come out and fight you! I’ll come out and fight you, you revengeful son of a bitch!"

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Director: Michael Anderson

Starring: Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson, Peter Hooten, Robert Carradine, Bo Derek, Keenan Wynn

Screenplay: Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati

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Synopsis: While attempting to capture a great white shark, fisherman Nolan (Richard Harris) and his crew encounter Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), a marine biologist, and her assistant, Ken (Robert Carradine), who are diving in the same area. Rachel is taken onto Nolan’s boat, but Ken falls into the water. As the shark moves towards him, it is suddenly attacked and killed by a killer whale. Soon after, Nolan begins attending Rachel’s university lectures on the killer whale. Realising that Nolan intends trying to capture one for an aquarium, Rachel makes a futile attempt to talk him out of it. At sea, Nolan and his team find a small pod of whales. Nolan fires a tranquilizer harpoon at the male, but misses and hits the female instead. Screaming in pain, the injured animal runs into the ship’s propellers, mortally wounding itself. Nolan and his crew chain the animal and winch it out of the water. To the horror of the onlookers, the whale then aborts its foetus. The ship turns towards shore, but is suddenly struck hard by something in the water. The impact knocks the crew to the ground, with Annie (Bo Derek) breaking her foot. Paul (Peter Hooten) realises that the boat has been struck by the mate of the captured whale. As the animal attacks repeatedly, Nolan sends Novak (Keenan Wynn) up to cut the female whale free. Novak does so, but as he clings to the rigging over the water, the male whale leaps from the water and takes him in its jaws, dragging him to his death. The whale resurfaces briefly, making eye contact with Nolan before returning to its dying mate. The next morning, the dead female whale is found beached near to where Nolan anchored. Nolan finds Rachel Bedford by the dead animal; she tells him that its mate beached the female there. She then introduces Nolan to Umilak (Will Sampson), who warns him that the killer whale’s capacity for vengeance means that his life is in danger. Nolan shrugs off the warning, but shortly afterwards the whale attacks and sinks two boats anchored near Nolan’s. As the animal’s campaign of destruction escalates, the fishing community turns on Nolan. Finally, realising what it is the whale wants, Nolan turns his boat towards the open seas for a final confrontation.

Comments: One of the golden rules of exploitation film-making is always to include a scene that no-one who sees your film ever forgets. When Orca first played TV here it was, for reasons that escape me at this distance (never mind what distance!), the film that everyone was planning on watching. The next day, my school was full to overflowing with distressed adolescent girls thoroughly traumatised by the scene of Mrs Orca’s miscarriage. I’m willing to bet that few of them have ever forgotten that scene, and on that level Orca is a great success. On every other, it is an abysmal, embarrassing failure. As shameless rip-offs go, Dino de Laurentiis’ riposte to Jaws (1975) is even worse than the previous year’s King Kong (1976) (ooh, look! - I’ve used the words "de Laurentiis" and "shameless" in the same sentence! Imagine!).

Under the guise of demonstrating what wonderful creatures killer whales are, the film uses them in a most insulting manner; namely, by claiming that they’re just like us. Anthropomorphism flatters no animal, but particularly not when the animal is credited, if that’s the right word, with the worst of human characteristics: cruelty, vindictiveness, and a capacity for deliberate, cold-blooded murder. The scenes meant to balance these, those showing the orcas as gentle, loving, family animals, are so cutesy and Disney-esque that they do the beleaguered whales an even greater disservice. Mind you, the screenplay is no less insulting to human beings. The film draws a distinction between women and Native Americans, who are "primitive" and thus "instinctively" know what’s going on, and white men, who are creatures of "intellect" and must learn that there are more things in heaven and earth, yada-yada.

The exception to this classification is the fishermen, who are "superstitious" and thus get lumped into the former group. The film opens as many bad films do, with a "cute-meet". In its struggle to make a relationship between Nolan and Rachel Bedford believable, the script gives Charlotte Rampling the humiliating task of explaining that Nolan’s mixture of "ignorance" and "curiosity" made him seem "vulnerable – even attractive". (Must be something about female scientists – I’ve always found pig-ignorant, lecherous, alcoholic whale-killers attractive, too!) We then move to the horrendous scene of the harpooning of Mrs Orca and her encounter with the ship’s propeller, in which crew member Annie, played by a very young Bo Derek, demonstrates her "instinctive" knowledge by announcing, "She’s trying to kill herself!" rather than, say, "She’s panicked and injured herself even more!" At the end of all this carnage, we get our first look at the film’s recurring motif, the sight of Nolan reflected in Orca’s eye. As the embittered animal moves into his campaign to force Nolan into a mano-a-mano--- er, mano-a-cetacean--- (well, whatever), the film lurches through scene after scene of mindboggling idiocy.

By the time we’ve reached the bathetic intercutting of Nolan explaining that he knows just how Orca feels, ‘cos he lost his pregnant wife to a drunken driver, and Orca severing some fuel lines and starting an enormous fire (and displaying, if I may say so, a remarkable working knowledge of engineering and thermodynamics), the film has achieved a level of such undiluted stupidity that it stops being offensive. Indeed, it then stakes a claim in the all-time comedy stakes with Unforgettable Scene #2: Orca knocking over Nolan’s house and chowing down on the incapacitated Annie, mysteriously confined to a full-length cast despite only having a broken foot. (Leonard Maltin’s sniffy dismissal of Orca as being for people "whose idea of entertainment is watching Bo Derek getting her leg bitten off" has always struck me as rather funny. Frankly, I’d worry about anyone who could keep a straight face through the sight of Bo ending up as Snacky-Cakes.) This final, ah, tragedy forces Nolan to give in to Orca’s demands, and he heads out to sea accompanied by Rachel Bedford, what’s left of his crew, and the local Native American mystic, Umilak, tastefully introduced some time earlier with the tone-setting line, "She speak you the truth!" This motley bunch obediently follows as Orca leads them so far north that they haven’t got enough fuel to get home again (you can almost hear Orca thinking, "How stupid are these people!?"), then sets about picking them off one by one. Ken, Rachel’s not-too-bright assistant, is the first to go. Learning nothing from Novak’s earlier fate, Ken leans just a leetle too far over the side. Chomp! Soon after, Paul decides to get the lifeboat ready. Thump! Chomp!

Despite all this, Nolan has made up his mind it’s going to be a "fair fight", and manages to hit his adversary with a hand-thrown harpoon. In response, the pissed off whale shoves the boat against an iceberg, and Umilak ends up under a torrent of falling ice. Squish! Nolan and Rachel then make like little Eva, but Nolan’s got nowhere to run, and before long is picked up by the victorious whale and tossed against an iceberg. Splat! Unfortunately, the same fate isn’t meted out to Rachel Bedford (Orca’s first mistake, IMHO). Instead, Orca turns around and swims off into the sunrise as a truly dreadful love song starts to play over the credits (see "Immortal Dialogue"). Awful on almost every level, Orca is exploitation film-making in the worst sense of the expression. The acting is bad, the script is appalling; even Ennio Morricone’s score is forced and rather annoying. (The cinematography’s nice, though, and that’s as close to praise for this film as I’m going to get.) Orca’s constant references to Jaws are yet another example of the mysterious tendency of bad films deliberately to remind us of good films. The opening killing of a great white shark by a whale is nothing less than nyah-nyah-nyah. Then we meet Keenan Wynn and Peter Hooten, whose fates should come as no surprise at all, since they’re made up to look like Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfus, respectively. As the film’s heroes – or rather, protagonists – no, no, central characters, that’s it – Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling are fittingly terrible in terrible roles. The film’s acting honours go to its real heroes, Orca and particularly Mrs Orca, whose protracted death scene is enough to turn the most committed pacifist into a vigilante.