The best scene in 1977's Orca comes right at the beginning, when a great white shark is about to chow down on a hapless scuba diver. But just in the nick of time, along comes ol' Orca himself, who promptly beats the shark into a bloody pulp with a massive head-butt. A lot of Italian producers made Jaws rip-offs in the 1970s, but only Orca producer Dino De Laurentiis would be so brazen about it. (I haven't seen Jaws 2, but apparently its makers retaliated by having their shark kill – you guessed it – a killer whale.)
During the course of the film that bears his name, Orca also gets it on with Ms. Orca just after the opening credits; leads a killer-whale funeral for his pregnant mate after fisherman Richard Harris kills her (leading to the immortal scene where she miscarries and drops a dead whale fetus right on the deck of Harris's boat); nudges her carcass onto the beach where Harris has anchored his boat, as a calling card; scares away all the fish; sinks every boat in the harbor except Harris's; knocks over an oil lamp and blows up some oil tanks, setting half the town on fire; knocks down Harris's house and chows down on Bo Derek's leg; and draws Harris and his crew all the way to the coast of Labrador, where he finally gets his revenge on the guy who killed his family by flicking him into the air with his tail and smashing him against an iceberg. Can your shark do that?
The reference to the "coast of Labrador" is kind of important, because Orca was the first big-budget Hollywood production of the modern era filmed and set right here in Newfoundland. (It was also the last, until The Shipping News in 2001. It might be another 24 years before we get another one.) Harris and his crew (including Derek, in her film debut) have settled down in the fictional community of "South Harbour," but any Newfoundlander will recognize Petty Harbour, located about 20 minutes outside of St. John's. If you were going to build a massive set that looked like a Newfoundland outport of popular imagination, it would probably look a lot like Petty Harbour.
Actually, it's remarkable how few of the characters are actually from Newfoundland. Harris's character is from Ireland (I thought he was from Ferryland, myself), his crew are American, and marine biologist Charlotte Rampling – who gets a big scene early in the movie, explaining to her freshman class at Exposition U about the killer whale's intelligence and thirst for vengeance – is a Brit. Even the wise old Indian, who looks and sounds exactly like The Sphinx in Mystery Men (except that he doesn't have any lines as profound as, "to learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn"), is from "up North." Maybe Labrador, but he doesn't say. The only Newfoundlander with more than one or two lines is the leader of the local fishermen, who forces Harris to go back out to sea for a final showdown with the killer whale. No, he wasn't played by Gordon Pinsent or Rick Mercer.
Orca is a great film as long as the killer whale is on a rampage — in particular, I will long cherish the scene where he sets the town on fire, a feat he celebrates with a glorious leap into the air. Many of the killer whales were obviously filmed in an aquarium and matted into the Newfoundland scenes, but considering that the movie is 29 years old, I'll give it a pass. (The flying scenes in the original Superman look pretty shabby now, too.) The scenes where the whale isn't around, where Harris tries to overcome his guilt and Rampling acts really, really stuffy, are best fast-forwarded through. Sadly, the movie really goes off the rails in its last half hour, when Harris passes up the opportunity to just shoot the damn whale so he can follow it hundreds of miles north, so he can apologize to the whale. Or kill it. It's never really clear, to be honest. (Rampling's awkward voice-overs betray some serious problems with the screenplay.)
Still, if you're in the mood for a nice big hunk of '70s cheese, you could do much worse. As several other critics have noted, the producers of Jaws later ripped off the plot of this famous Jaws rip-off for Jaws: The Revenge. Maybe someday, if we're lucky, we'll get Jaws vs. Orca, produced by Michael Bay. My money is on the whale.
Trivia note: there's a B&B called the "Orca Inn" in Petty Harbour.Powered by Sidelines