The sights and sounds we take in growing up often have the power to stick with us well into adulthood. These images can be from film or television and can encompass any tone or genre of storytelling. More often than not, however, it’s the stuff that frightened and disturbed us in those formative years that tends to stick to the walls of memory the hardest.
The Internet is awash with content centered around people sharing those moments across media that scarred their growing psyches, ranging from more well-known media to more obscure stuff. Those moments in film and TV that gave us a shock to the system. Things that, for some reason or another, hit us at just the right moment to carve a lasting memory.
For me personally, one of those things is the 1977 Dino De Laurentiis produced jaws knock off, Orca: The Killer Whale.
Directed by Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run), the film is about the life and death feud between fisherman Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) and a killer whale he inadvertently took everything from. Yes, the titular Orca is hellbent on revenge, and the tone of the film is utterly serious, which makes it all the more compelling.
In my write-up of 1980’s Alligator I discussed at length that so much of the media that genuinely got under my skin as a child revolved around aquatic themed horror, all thanks to jaws. Nature Strikes Back creature-features were some of my favorite genre films to catch on the tube or rent from the local Blockbuster as a wee one. Many were good, some were not. orcas is one particular post-jaws animal attack movie that has always struck a chord with me. One scene in particular “speared” itself into my memory for life.
I remember catching orcas on TV as a child just as Captain Nolan begins his hunt for the sea dwelling mammal. See, Nolan isn’t looking to kill an Orca, but merely catch one to sell to pay off some debts and finance his trip back home to Ireland. Disregarding the advice of the locals and Charlotte Rampling‘s cetologist, Dr. Bedford, Nolan proceeds with his fishing quest. It soon goes south—and fast. Nolan accidentally harpoons a female Orca, who tries to kill itself on the propellers before getting hauled on deck.
As it turns out, the female Orca was pregnant, and she miscarries on the deck. The bloody fetus bursts from the womb to the shock and horror of the crew. Needless to say, little me did NOT expect to see an image so traumatizing from what I innocently assumed to be a simple monster movie about a killer whale.
The Orca miscarriage was such a blunt, brutal bit of business I honestly don’t know if I finished the film that day. Watching it today, it still manages to shock and unsettle me. The despair and horror the Orca experiences during this segment is raw and emotionally powerful, and as we see the male Orca watch his family being taken from him, we’re aching to see the guy go Death Wish on Nolan and his crew.
Therein lies the trick of orcas. It manages to get the audience to invest completely in this tale of an ocean mammal on a warpath of revenge. The film quickly establishes the supreme intelligence of the species, making it easy to suspend disbelief for those willing to go with the flow. Revenge narratives are just easy to get into, even if the revenge is being wrought by a killer whale.
The film is also intelligent enough to give Orca (that’s his name, I don’t care) plenty of screen time. There is no hiding of the monster here, because the narrative doesn’t frame him as the monster. There are several close-ups of his eyes that convey a range of emotions. From sadness to cunning and to rage. The effects hold up incredibly well, too. The editing between live Orca footage and model Orcas is pretty tight and convincing, and the film even manages to make the beast genuinely scary by taking advantage of the scale between man and killer whale. Shots of the towering dorsal fin honing in on Nolan during the film’s arctic-set climax are particularly harrowing.
Orca himself makes for an easy to root for hero, and make no mistake, he is the hero of the film. The script is smart enough to make Nolan a dimensional man who feels true remorse for what he did to Orca’s family, but we still want to see Orca win, and win he does. So many Nature Strikes Back films end with the animal(s) dying in the end, even if the story frames them sympathetically. orcas has the balls to not only kill off its human star, but it also lets the animal live through the encounter.
orcas is one hell of an entertaining film. It’s paced exceedingly well, the set pieces are fun and memorable, it boasts an above average cast for a jaws knock-off, and it’s flat out emotionally compelling. The battle between Nolan and Orca gets outright mythic as the film progresses.
With three good leads (yes, Orca is one of those three), strong directing, a handful of arresting images, and a moving score by Ennio Morricone to put the cherry on top, Orca: The Killer Whale is one of the few jaws rip-offs that stands on its own. It’s definitely one of the best.