The late seventies saw Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis launch three “nature gone amok” monster movies in a bid to take a bigger bite out of the global box office and top Jaws (1975). First came his infamous remake of King Kong (1976) (“When monkey die, people cry!”), then the “Herman Melville goes west” mysticism of The White Buffalo (1977). Finally, De Laurentiis went out to sea for Orca the Killer Whale. As if laying down the gauntlet, the film opens with a floundering sailor set to be gobbled by a Great White, until the friendly killer whale rips the man-eater in two. You can almost hear De Laurentiis crow: “Sharks? Ha! They’ve got nothing on our guy!”
Orca’s intervention is witnessed by Captain Nolan (Richard Harris), a shark hunter out to land a bigger catch by bagging these beasties. His idea appals marine biologist Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), first seen lecturing on these amazing animals. She tells her class, Orca Orcinus - “the bringer of death” according to ancient Romans - is “the most powerful animal on the globe”. Its brain has more capacity than man’s and a recording of its voice was found to contain 15 million pieces of information. “The Bible contains only four million”, she concludes. Rampling is normally a wonderful actress, but seeing her deliver that clanger with stone-faced solemnity is flat-out hilarious.
Rachel tries to talk Nolan out of pursuing the orca and even sleeps with the lonely widower, just so he’ll reconsider. Of course, the next morning he heads out to sea. Nolan harpoons Orca’s mate, hauls her aboard and promptly loses his lunch when the dying whale ejects a stillborn foetus on deck. Orca rears his head above water to emit an anguished roar. Thereafter it’s Death Wish (1974) with an aquatic mammal (You thought I was going to say fish, didn’t you?), as Orca wreaks bloody vengeance on Nolan’s crew and the local fishing community. Nolan’s nautical pal, Novak (Keenan Wynn) is swallowed whole. The whale rams holes in all the fishing boats, sets off a series of spectacular explosions (somehow) and, most spectacularly, hauls half a house into the murky deep. After shipmate Annie (Bo Derek) has her leg chomped off, Nolan returns to sea with Rachel and Native American mystic, Umilak (Will Sampson of course) in tow, for a Spaghetti Western showdown with Orca, amidst back-and-forth close-ups of staring eyeballs and an operatic Ennio Morricone score.
Although directed by Englishman, Michael Anderson (whose eclectic filmography includes The Dam Busters and Logan’s Run (1976)), Orca the Killer Whale is Italian exploitation all the way; the first - and best - in a line of Jaws rip-offs that include Enzo G. Castellari’s The Shark Hunter (1979) and L’Ultimo Squalo (1980), Lamberto Bava’s Shark - “Rosso nell’Oceano (1984), and Bruno Mattei’s Cruel Jaws (1995), among many others. The film is outrageously silly at times, but three elements lift it out of the ordinary: the doom-laden romanticism of Ennio Morricone’s lovely score (featuring his favourite diva: Edda dell’Orso); the strange, often beautiful imagery, with evocative underwater photography and a seamless blend of whale footage with Carlo Rambaldi’s special effects; and a deadly serious, intelligent performance from Richard Harris. Not so much evil as misguided, Nolan proves a genuinely tragic anti-hero. Having lost his wife to a drunk driver, he is all to aware of the sin he has committed and reluctant to face Orca. Their mythic showdown amidst the icy wastes of the North Pole provides a fittingly haunting conclusion, but if it all proves too ridiculous, amuse yourself by imagining Charles Bronson providing a voice for Orca.