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Blu-ray Review: Sympathy for the “ORCA”

Friday, February 9, 2018 | Blu-ray/DVD, Review

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Starring Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling and Will Sampson
Directed by Michael Anderson
Written by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati
Umbrella Entertainment

The Dino De Laurentiis production ORCA may have been just one of the large school of nature-amok flicks to swim in the wake of JAWS, but it’s the most conspicuous example (if not the only one) in which audience sympathy is firmly planted on the side of the attacking animal.

This 1977 release was De Laurentiis’ second attempt, following his notorious ’76 remake of KING KONG, to follow the blockbuster model JAWS had provided. He is famously reported to have said of his great ape, “When JAWS die, nobody cry, but when the monkey die, people gonna cry,” and the same ambition lies behind ORCA. As genre journalist/author Lee Gambin notes in his commentary on the new Blu-ray from Australia’s Umbrella Entertainment—labeled region B, but playable on A devices as well—the film also follows in the revenge tradition of DEATH WISH (another De Laurentiis production)—only here, the victimized family belongs to a killer whale.

The orca loses his loved ones to Captain Nolan (Richard Harris), who’s on a rather unlikely mission to bring back a great white shark alive when he and his crew witness just such a predator being rammed to death by the whale. (After this riposte to JAWS, it can’t be coincidence that JAWS 2 featured a chomped-on orca carcass.) Nolan and crew’s attempt to capture the male mammal leads to the gruesome death of his mate—which, while strung up from a mast, miscarries her unborn baby onto the boat’s deck! This horrific sight was a kindertrauma to many kids (including yours truly) who saw this surprisingly PG-rated movie back in the day, and it remains ORCA’s most potent image.

Thereafter, the vengeful orca goes on a quite understandable mission to decimate Nolan’s team (including Keenan Wynn and Bo Derek, in her second film but her first to see release, who figures in the film’s runner-up most memorable moment) and force Nolan back out to sea for a final confrontation. The premise and its development are schlocky and contrived, with dialogue to match, exacerbated by the fact that everyone involved approached the material with a complete lack of intentional humor. (One possible exception: Nolan’s boat, which gets repeatedly jostled by the orca, is called the Bumpo.) The efforts to elicit sympathy for the killer whales are certainly more persuasive than the attempts to convince us that a marine biologist played by Charlotte Rampling is attracted to the chilly, irascible Nolan, or to establish a spiritual connection between Nolan and the orca via the revelation that the former also lost his wife and child in a car accident.

On the other hand, this B-movie premise is approached like an A-movie by director Michael Anderson and his team, particularly cinematographer Ted Moore, a veteran of several James Bond films. It’s a handsome production, with great use of picturesque Newfoundland locations, and the considerable orca footage by underwater/2nd-unit cinematographer J. Barry Herron establishes the whale as a more believable character than any of those played by his two-legged co-stars. The most noteworthy contributor, however, is Ennio Morricone, who composed one of his most beautiful and underrated scores for this movie—music that, from the beginning, is key to engaging us with its aquatic protagonist. This “humanization” of the title beast allows ORCA to stand out amongst its ecological-horror brethren, and it’s a kick to watch him not just chow down on hapless people and wreck boats, but actually contrive a destructive, fiery explosion on land.

With U.S. distributor Paramount Pictures uninterested in giving this catalog title more than a bare-bones DVD, Australia’s Umbrella has stepped into the breach with its hi-def disc. The aforementioned visual splendor is given a very fine showcase in the 1080p 2.35:1 transfer; a few murky or heavily grainy shots aside (no doubt a condition of the original elements), the colors are rich and the image clear and stable. The DTS-HD 5.1 sound nicely accentuates the action scenes and, most crucially, Morricone’s alternately haunting and nerve-jangling themes.

Gambin’s commentary is equal parts research and fan passion, as he provides thorough backgrounds for all the folks involved in the film while expressing extreme enthusiasm for even its dodgiest parts. He also addresses how ORCA fits into the paradigm of angry-nature films, and shares occasional great anecdotes—my favorite is activists protesting the trucking of whales to the Canadian locations, unaware that they were actually lifelike mockups. Martha De Laurentiis sits down for an on-camera interview, though since ORCA preceded her marriage to Dino, she only has five minutes’ worth of observations to offer. Still, it’s nice to have her on board as she acknowledges JAWS’ influence on ORCA, praises the cast and addresses speculation about a KING KONG/ORCA crossover film (!?).

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.