Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Orca: The Killer Whale
It’s time for another dip into the cinematic realms of uber-producer Dino De Laurentiis. Originally from Italy, De Laurentiis brought a sensibility honed by making sword & sandal pictures in his native land to the US in the 1970s. But instead of continuing to make Hercules or Maciste pictures, he upped the ante by getting into popular stateside genres as quickly and inexpensively as possible. At the same time, he had more sense for the rigors of production than the Go-Go Boys at Cannon; which led to movies which still looked like legitimate films. And this weekend’s cheesy movie, Orca: The Killer Whale, is a Jaws knock-off of the highest caliber which both benefits and finds itself betrayed by De Laurentiis’s philosophy.
The plot concerns an Irish marine hunter named Nolan (Richard Harris). While out on a routine hunt for a great white shark in the waters near Newfoundland, Canada, he sees his quarry get utterly owned by a real bastard of the sea: a killer whale. Fascinated by the creature, he begins to attend lectures held by marine biologist Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling). Seeing as delivering great whites to nearby aquariums can earn Nolan upwards of $250,000 Canadian, he assumes bringing the orca in will give him the cash necessary to pay off the mortgage on the boat and return to Ireland.
His plan goes disastrously wrong when he snares the orca’s mate; mutilating her to such a degree that she miscarries on the deck of his boat. Recalling his own private trauma, Nolan washes the fetus off he deck as the orca looks on in horror. Nolan’s attempt to bring the whale’s mate back to port also goes badly as the orca chases the boat and tries his best to sink it. Nolan’s trusted crewman Novak (Keenan Wynn) releases the mate from the rigging, but ends up in the powerful bite of the orca.
Though saddened by Novak’s death, Nolan assumes the worst is over. But the orca floats his mate’s corpse all the way to Newfoundland and begins attacking the fishing village Nolan calls home. Despite being an animal, the orca exhibits all the traits of a grief-stricken husband looking for revenge. Soon, the fishermen, the local indigenous representative and the orca itself all make it very clear that Nolan must deal with this problem first hand. When the orca demolishes his seaside home and bits the leg off a member of his crew, he finally agrees to face it in open waters.
And if the plot sounds nothing like Jaws, that’s part of the charm. Producer Luciano Vincenzoni was ordered by De Laurentiis to find a “fish tougher” than a great white shark and build a film off that creature. Vincenzoni’s brother suggested killer whales — which are expert predators in the wild despite the friendly status assigned to them by Sea World’s marketing — and soon he was writing a script with Sergio Donati which studiously avoids many of the concepts found in Jaws. Instead of an animal with inhuman intentions wandering into a seaside town around the fourth of July, the orca is presented as an intelligent mammal with the potential for human feelings — specifically: revenge.
It is the key plot point which sets it apart from Jaws ripoffs like Grizzly and Tentacles.
Prior to Nolan’s botched attempt to capture the orca, the film goes out of its way to define what an orca is and establish that its intelligence may be equal to humans. The pipe-laying works as the whale turns out to be a legitimate and canny adversary for Harris’s Nolan. Initially presented as a short-sighted opportunist, the viewer discovers he is a man caught up in his own great loss. His wife and unborn child will killed by drunk driver back in Ireland. The miscarried fetus awoke these memories in him and by the time he decides to deal with the orca himself, he actually empathizes with the creature.
This level of character work not typically seen in these sorts of Italian Jaws rip-offs. Where Tentacles, for example, suggested so many characters it became difficult to discern if Claude Akins, John Huston or Bo Hopkins was the protagonist, Orca makes it very clear that Nolan is the main character. Whether or not he’s the protagonist is up for debate. But the fact the story has enough meat on its bones to allow for that debate truly sets it apart from other works in its cheesy subgenre. An uncredited re-write of the script by legendary Hollywood script doctor Robert Towne (Chinatown) may have something to do its unusual quality at the story level.
So where’s the cheese? Squarely in its production. Director Michael Anderson — the man who helmed the potentially cheesy Logan’s Run and Millenium — makes some curious choices in his shots. Crash zooms meant to emphasize a key detail in his compositions or heightened the tension just illicit laughs. The model work employed when the orca attacks the village has a model train quality to them that is simultaneously charming and silly. Reactions to deaths are strangely overplayed or underplayed depending on the situation. The orca actually screams during the capture of its mate; which comes off more silly and operatic than the moment calls for. But Anderson and the script both find themselves in cheeseland during the final battle between Nolan and the orca.
The whale has led Nolan and his crew — which now includes Bedford — to the edge of the arctic ice flows. It begins to move some of the floating icebergs so they’ll trap Nolan’s boat over the course of the night. It also kills crewman Paul (Peter Hooten) as he attempts to flee in the life boat. Come daylight, Nolan, Bedford and Jacob Umilak (Will Sampson) find themselves caught in a set which never looks convincing as a group of icebergs. Umilak is killed by some falling glacier ice and the orca finally does enough damage to the boat to sink it. Nolan and Bedford hide among the nearby icebergs, but Nolan slips and gives away his position to the orca. It immediately upends the sheet of ice Nolan finds himself on and uses its tail to smack him into another iceberg, killing him. Bedford watches in dismay as his corpse goes under the water.
At a script level, the sequence is shockingly anti-climatic. But considering Jaws already used the greatest climax for a cinematic fish tale ever devised — the Jaws sequels would all use variations of it — what else could Vincenzoni, Donati and Towne to do? Thematically, Nolan could have sacrificed himself before Paul, Umilak and Bedford’s biologist friend Ken (Robert Carradine) all got killed, but it may have not been the note Anderson wanted to cap the film, even if Nolan goes under the water in a not-too-subtle Christ pose.
As mentioned above, the iceberg set, constructed in the beautiful waters off Malta, fails to give the viewer the impression Nolan and Bedford are in a freezing climate as deadly as the whale trying to kill them. In some of the wider shots, it almost passes, but in tighter shots and close-ups, it looks like stagecraft meant for a Christmastime dance revue.
Thanks to the poor concept and poor execution of the climax, Orca is remembered as a bad Jaws rip-off instead of the more thoughtful film it sets out to be for the first hour of its 90 minute run time. Sure, De Laurentiis had no higher aspiration than a “tougher” Jaws and the deaths scenes come off as particularly schlocky, but Vincenzoni, the cast, and arguably Anderson went out of their way to make the film less of the Jaws rip-off it looks like from the poster. Well, at least until that last half hour. Unlike other cheesy movies we profile, Orca: The Killer Whale will offer you legitimate moments of tension, surprising amounts of character, Harris’s committed performance, and surprisingly well executed gore during the capture of the orca’s mate. But it will generate laughter at moments Anderson, Vincenzoni and De Laurentiis definitely meant the audience to perceive as serious and shocking. The result: a higher quality of cheese.
Orca: The Killer Whale is available for rent at the usual streaming services. It’s also available on DVD.