Revenge is a dish best served watery.

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Orca is a “natural horror” film about a killer whale seeking revenge against a fisherman (Richard Harris) who killed its mate. It was released in 1977, two years after Jaws; and even though it’s really its own movie, it was derided at the time of its release for being a Jaws ripoff, probably because the premise does sort of sound like “Jaws, but with an orca.”

Now, the film does have many problems, but one of those is definitely not its beautiful soundtrack, from Ennio Morricone. Note the use of the theremin (at least I think that’s what it is), which is often noted as sounding like a human. Here, though, it sounds like a whale.

The story begins with Captain Nolan trying to capture a great white shark. But he can’t risk firing the harpoon because two scientists (including Dr. Bedford, the narrator) happen to be studying orcas’ sonar in the water, and are targeted by the shark. At the last second, an orca rams into the shark, saving the scientist. This prompts Nolan to turn his interest to capturing an orca, and he starts attending Bedford’s lectures. The gist of Bedford’s science, though embellished, is actually more or less accurate: that orcas are highly intelligent and social, and communicate with an apparently sophisticated language.

Later, despite Bedford’s warnings that he won’t be able to capture one alive, Nolan sets out to do just that. When he comes across a pod of them, he aims at a bull, but only knicks its dorsal fin, hitting its pregnant mate instead. The crew reel her on board, where she miscarries as she bleeds to death.

orca

The rest of the story is about the surviving whale’s determination to exact vengeance on Nolan. The orca follows him back to a fishing village and proceeds to cause a surprising amount of trouble for the fishers, eventually forcing Nolan to confront the whale at sea.

This movie does suffer from underdeveloped characters, which makes for an overly straightforward plot. It’s just under 90 minutes and feels too long, mainly because of all the time Nolan spends pretending the whale isn’t stalking him, or refusing to face it.

I’m amazed, incidentally, at the effects here. Unlike the horrible animatronic shark in Jaws, this looks like an actual orca. It probably is one in many or all of the shots – I legitimately can’t tell the difference.

But surprisingly, the one aspect of the film that you would expect to be its biggest weakest – namely, the whale itself – is actually the opposite. The whale itself actually lends a lot of pathos to the film that the human characters sorely lack. It’s the heart of the movie.

This is in direct contrast to Jaws. In that movie, the shark is a mindless killing machine. It’s a plot device, not a character, just like any horror monster. In Orca, if anyone is the monster, it’s Nolan himself. So while Jaws needs to hide the shark, showing it as little as possible, there are all kinds of shots of the whale in Orca. Most tellingly, we get plenty of looks at its face, and especially looks at its eye. These are humanizing shots.

It’s actually a much more subtle movie than Jaws. Because the horror here isn’t that there’s a monster. The horror is that the orca is like a human. There’s never any doubt about the intensity of its grief or its desire for vengeance.

In other words, the horror is in Nolan’s slow realization that he has committed murder.

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I saw 'Mars Attacks!' in theaters when I was five. I still think it's the greatest horror movie for five year olds ever made.