Orca (1977)

March 14th 2015
Intro by Lee Gambin
Writer / Author and Cinemaniacs founder
Purchase Lee’s Books on Amazon

Good evening everyone and welcome to the second screening of Cinemaniacs 2015 line-up – welcome to the incredibly beautiful ORCA.

ORCA is a definite favourite of mine from the Dino De Laurentiis cannon, however it is also one of my all time favourite ecological horror movies that I discuss in depth in my book published a few years ago “Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film” – which incidentally is one of the prizes tonight.

ORCA is truly a unique experience – it doesn’t heavily rely on one subgenre of film nor does it ground itself within the narrative trappings of another, it genuinely is a successful marriage of multiple story tropes as it bounces from the aforementioned ecological horror film to revenge-centric cinema and then plays off elements pertaining to animal spirit movies, monster movies and the open air seafaring adventure film.

However, because it opened in 1977, which was two years after a certain shark terrorized the citizens of Amity, the film gets tossed into the JAWS-clone bag and to simply describe it as just that is completely missing the point and does an absolute injustice to the majesty of director Michael Anderson’s remarkably moving film of ORCA.

Also, Dino De Laurentiis himself, really thought of the film as an extension to his re-envisioning of KING KONG rather than a JAWS cash-in. And this makes complete sense, because both his KING KONG and ORCA are very much heavily painted up with pathos and sentimentality – something that late seventies cinema audiences were starting to get a taste for.

With Steven Spielberg’s JAWS being such a massive hit and also a film that would singlehandedly change the way films were made and marketed, there was no doubt that a cavalcade of quote unquote imitators would surface across the world – some of them would be terrific such as Joe Dante’s socially aware PIRANHA, Lewis Teague’s fantastic biting commentary on the class system in ALLIGATOR and the Mexican film TINTORERA which injected a killer tiger shark on the rampage plot with a very complicated and equally steamy love triangle subplot that tackled gender politics in a bizarre way. If ORCA must be perceived as one of the JAWS imitators, than it most certainly is one of the greatest.

Where Joe Dante’s incredible PIRANHA examines social and political concerns including the notion of media concocted commodity, the hangover from the Vietnam War and shady government conspiracies, ORCA is all about the personal. ORCA doesn’t comment on class resentment the way ALLIGATOR does, nor does it really have a very distinct or clear environmental message the way movies like STANLEY and PROPHECY do, instead it explores human relations, spirituality and most importantly and fundamentally it taps in on the connection shared between human and animal – in ORCA, the link that ties man and beast as one is direct and personal.

Unlike JAWS which presents its oceanic monster as a soulless and almost demonic leviathan, ORCA delivers an incredibly sympathetic angle, giving the killer whale a tenderness and melancholy: this is a creature who is also a husband and father-to-be, and he is wronged and his soul is crushed and he will take revenge on the humans who fucked with him.

I’m not going to tell you too much about the plot, but I do want to talk a bit about some of the people involved in this fabulous film, as well as some key moments in the movie that really stand out and gave an already rabid horror junkie seven year old Lee Gambin some memorable chills.

Actor Richard Harris plays the stoic and gruff Captain Nolan, a shark hunting seabee who heads the expedition that wrongs the killer whale. Harris insisted on doing all of his own stunts, and during the climactic sequences shot off the coast of Malta, the actor nearly broke his neck, nearly lost consciousness from a fall and badly hurt his arm sliding down a densely structured waterproof perspex iceberg. Harris is really on top of his game here, a lot of critics were very mean about him at the time suggesting that he did this film for “drinking money”, but I strongly feel its one of the actor’s greatest later works. The scene where he asks the local reverend if a man can commit a sin against an animal truly cements this notion of spirituality and the inseparable connection made between beast and man. So, when the reverend explains that to commit a sin against an animal is more so committing a sin against oneself, we feel Harris’s guilt and confusion all at the same time, and this is a true testament to this accomplished and refined actor.

Co-starring alongside Richard Harris is the fabulous Charlotte Rampling as marine biologist Rachel Bedford. Her character is a stock fixture in the ecologically themed horror film – this is what I like to call “the sympathetic specialist” who is almost always a woman, always dedicated to her work, has a natural connection to the concerns and welfare of the animal in question and is usually paired up with a hardened, cynical and haunted male loner. These women usually run the show. All these pre-requisites are ticked here in ORCA. Other actresses who have played such rich and complex roles are Tiffany Bolling in KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, Katherine Ross in THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS, Heather Menzies in SSSSSS and Kate MacNeil in MONKEY SHINES. Charlotte Rampling’s Rachel is a beautifully written character because she gets a very layered arc to play out – she begins as a very serious and very concerned professional but as the film progresses and as we get an insight into her feelings through her voice over narration, she starts to soften and open up to the idea of actually caring for the kind of man she’d never normally be interested in. It’s a very subtle romantic dance that’s played out in ORCA and one cemented in deep sadness and besieged by overwhelming loneliness.

And masterfully articulating this dance between loneliness and romance is musical maestro Ennio Morricone. My God. His music for this film is sheer brilliance. If you are not moved by the power of his score, than I don’t think I can talk to you afterwards. We don’t need to speak about how amazing Morricone is, we all know that, but you simply have to know that his music for ORCA is absolute authorship and gives voice to the heart of the film. Just let the music take over as you watch the scenes where the whales gracefully glide throughout the ocean in harmonious bliss, and when Richard Harris finally sets out to sea to clash head to head with the orca, and also my favorite scene where the magnificent killer whale does a water ballet reveling in the destruction he has caused on shore – here this angry and vengeful killer whale truly becomes the enemy of the people.

ORCA also marks actress and model Bo Derek’s big screen debut. Two years later she would go on to star in 10 alongside Dudley Moore, Julie Andrews and horror regular Dee Wallace, under the direction of Blake Edwards. ORCA producer Dino De Laurentiis hired the lovely Derek for a number of reasons, and one of the primary ones was because she reminded him of Jessica Lange who had starred in his reimagining of KING KONG from the year before. Derek gets one of the greatest moments in the film – one of the most iconic images in 70s eco-horror, and it jumpstarts the final act with such gleeful exploitation cinema shock value.

Character actor Keenan Wynn also pops up. Wynn also featured in other animal-centric motion pictures throughout the years including Stanley Donen’s FEARLESS FAGAN (1952) which featured an army inductee lion, THE NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY (1966) starring Clint Walker which featured a killer bear known as Satan and the aforementioned cult classic PIRANHA (1978). Robert Carradine, of the legendary Carradine family, is also in the film.

Native American Indian Muscogee actor Will Sampson stars in ORCA as well as Umilak, an expert and scholar on whales and other marine creatures. ORCA embraces the cultural significance of Native American Indian spirituality and its connection to the complexities of the animal kingdom in relation to mankind and the human condition. Other eco-horror movies that have explored similar narrative terrain are two movies I previously briefly mentioned PROPHECY (1979) featuring a keen interest in the marriage between environmental awareness and the struggles of the American Indian people and STANLEY (1972) which makes a sturdy statement about race relations in the wake of the Vietnam War. Also, a terrific underrated film NIGHTWING (1979) directed by Arthur Hiller does similar stuff and that film features killer bats acting as an extension to a war cry from an angry Hopi elder.

ORCA successfully establishes spiritual connections shared between animals and human beings. Throughout the film the characters come to represent an extension of the whale, and as Morricone’s main theme suggests “We are one”. I’m also very proud that tonight’s proceeds are going to an environmental group that share that same ethos – Sea Shepherd Australia. So once again, a huge thank you to you all for coming this evening.

So sit back, be prepared to cry, and enjoy the eco-horror masterpiece that is ORCA.

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