Monday, March 19, 2018

Swimming with ORCA (1977)

I've avoided ORCA (1977) for decades. The reason for this is that I've been told by many people - critics and regular folk alike - that it is a simply awful movie. The way I first heard about the film was, in fact, because of it's inclusion in one of the famous Medved brothers' books about bad movies. Having long since realized that those particular critics were a little too clueless to be trusted as guides to interesting cinema I have found that many films they derided as crap have become personal favorites. But ORCA has remained a movie that I've avoided except for a chance viewing of a single scene involving Bo Derek's leg. My curiosity has remained low but got a boost after I finally watched JAWS 2 a while back. Jaws rip-offs have suddenly become of interest to me so, I began to seriously think it might be time to give ORCA it's day in court. How bad could it be, right? So when I heard recently about a Blu-ray release in Australia that included a film historian commentary track I leaped at the chance to not only see this legendary bad movie but to listen to someone talk about it as well. Who knows - he might even defend it from it's bad reputation.

Now that I've seen ORCA I can say that - sadly - I have to fall on the Medved side of the opinion scale for this one. That doesn't mean I have to like the Medveds but when they're right, they're right. The movie's central problem is that takes the mistake made by the fourth JAWS film and runs it around like it's sheer brilliance. This film would have you believe that because the brain size of a Killer Whale is large, that it therefore has the reasoning power, emotional responses and desire for vengeance that a human being would have. To demonstrate this we have a male Orca seek bloody revenge on all it holds responsible for the death of it's mate and unborn child. It's at this point in plotting this story that several someones should have stood up and explained how stupid the idea was so that a new avenue of story could be taken. But that did not happen. So, we have a film in which a Killer Whale stalks and murders human beings until it kills all but the last fisherman standing. I'm not kidding. If you were a sane person you might point out that these people could have escaped danger from an ocean dwelling mammal by...... moving away from the shore, maybe. Or not going out onto the water anymore. Taking a job inland someplace. Someplace dry, perhaps. But then we would have no film called ORCA and, to be honest, that would a loss to the world of bad cinema.

Let me be clear - this a terrible film. It's core conceit is so ridiculous that it could never have recovered from it no matter what tricks were tried. To anthropomorphize a whale to the degree this film does is to shove aside any chance of anything being taken seriously. They try their best by hiring some damned good actors and Richard Harris in particular is really giving this stupid idea his best effort. There are a number of scenes in which his acting is exceptional and very affecting. He does everything he can to bring a sense of pathos to his character as he comes to regret his actions and begins to see a (ludicrous) parallel between his life and the male Orca. But the fact that Harris puts so much talent in service of this extremely silly story is kind of sad. It makes the stupidity of the whole affair almost insulting and definitely sad. Like leaving a cake out in the rain.

So, after finally watching this 70's silliness I settled in for the commentary track by Lee Gambin and I'm glad I did. Mr. Gambin brings a film fans' enthusiasm and a film historian's depth of research to bear on this harebrained mess doing his level best to defend it. Interestingly, he doesn't even seem to feel that he has to do all that much to prove his point about the film's qualities and plunges right into reeling off reams of background information about the cast, the crew, the production history and reception of the film with little more than a nod toward those who might dislike the thing. Gambin is a bit of a specialist in Nature Gone Amuck films and his comments show a wide knowledge of the genre that makes for fascinating listening. In fact, he made me wish I could have a few minutes with him to talk more about some specific subjects. I'd like to discuss the obvious missing scenes scattered throughout the film. Clearly, this was meant to be a much longer film before it reached the editing room. Maybe there's a podcast in that?

So, this turns out to be a rare instance in which I enjoyed the commentary for a film more than I enjoyed the film itself. ORCA is a silly, lunk-headed attempt to make a modern Moby Dick story by way of JAWS and it really only served me as an unintentional comedy most of the running time. Great acting can't save a flawed script idea. But Lee Gambin's contribution is what I'll be returning to this Blu-Ray for in the future. He didn't convince me that this is a good film but he did convince me that Gambin's name on a release is a good reason to pick it up.


Nick Rentz said...

There were only a couple of scenes I liked in Orca. I’ve only seen it once. I remember the climax being ridiculous. I bet we can both agree Piranha is the best movie inspired by Jaws.

Rod Barnett said...

Piranha or Alligator. Love them both.