Friday, December 29, 2017

ORCA: THE KILLER WHALE (1977) (Umbrella Blu-ray Review)


Label: Umbrella Entertainment
Region Code: Region Free
Rating: M
Duration: 92 Minutes 
Audio: English DTS-HD MA Surround 5.1, DTS-HD MA Mono 2.0 with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.35:1)
Director: Michael Anderson 
Cast: Bo Derek, Charlotte Rampling, Richard Harris, Will Simpson, Keenan Wynn, Robert Carradine 

Orca: The Killer Whale (1977) is a film I watched on late-night cable as a young boy, I was mesmerized by it in fact, I had already watched Jaws (1975) several times, but the concept of a Jaws knock-off was a bit foreign to me, this was just another killer "fish" movie, and it was a killer whale, not a great white shark, the two movies couldn't be more different *wink wink*. It would be years before I would discover what "jawsploitation" was, a wonderful little sub genre of Jaws knock-off films that came out, and continue coming, all these years later, spurred by the game-changing success of the Spielberg classic film, and just to confirm it, one of the best movies ever made.  Italian Producer extordinaire Dino De Laurentis being the smart man that he was saw an opportunity to cash-in on the original and enlisted the aid of producer Luciano Vincenzoni to find a sea-best even more fearsome than the great white shark, it was he who thought up the idea of using an orca. The film is directed by Michael Anderson (Logan's Run), written by Sergio Donati (Once Upon a Time in the West) with a score from none other than Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), which is just an impressive cinema-pedigree behind the camera by any standard.

The film opens with - what else - a great white shark stalking a diver beneath the waves, a scientist named Ken (Robert Carradine, Revenge of the Nerds), who funnily swims and hides beneath a rock outcropping on the ocean floor to hide from the approaching shark, attempting to pull a large rock over the entrance to keep the shark out. The way the film is edited it seems when he drops the rock it catches the ear of the shark who comes in closer to investigate, too funny. Nearby Captain Nolan (Richard Harris, A Man Called Horse) sees the fin of the great white circling the area, he makes a living capturing live specimens for the local aquarium and takes aim at the predator, but an Orca arrives on scene and destroys the shark, saving the scientist but angering Nolan to a large degree, he vents his anger on the scientist and his associate Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling, The Night Porter). The encounter with the orca however spurs him to seek out a killer whale, which is sure to nab a hefty price from the aquarium. Tracking the orcas he takes aim at one but misses it, instead harpooning it's mate, which turns out the a pregnant female. What happens next is equal parts harrowing and hilarious, the preggers orca attempts to kill itself, hurling itself at the boat's spinning propellers, slicing it open and making a bloody mess - the water runs red. Eventually the crew hoist her up out of the water on a winch,  where she miscarries and the malformed orca falls onto the deck of the ship, to the horror of everyone, particularly the Nolan - who we later learn lost a child and loved one in an accident. The scene is heightened by the fact that the orca's mate is observing this from the water and screams - I shit you not - it straight up screams at the horror of it all! 

The grieving orca follows the ship, ramming in in an attempt to free it's mate, when the ship is threatened by the aggressive orca Nolan and his crew cut the orca free, but crewman Novak (Keenan Wynn, Herbie Rides Again)is snatched by the orca when it leaps out of the water, dragged to his death. The crew return to port but the maddened orca follows them, wreaking havoc on the small fishing community, first sinking several ships by ramming them while they're tied up, then setting the pier on fire (this orca is an arsonist!), and destroying Nolan's seaside home, even biting off the leg of Nolan's most attractive crew member, young Annie (Bo Derek, 10). I tell you what, the super-intelligent sharks of Deep Blue See (1999) have nothing on this damn orca!

It soon becomes evident that the orca has a personal vendetta against Nolan, it wants to face him on the open sea, man to sea-faring mammal, and so Nolan along with Dr. Rachel Bedford and her associate Ken,  the lone remaining crew member Paul (Peter Hooten, The Inglourious Batards),  and an indigenous local named Jacob Umilak (Will Sampson, Poltergeist II) set out to area where Nolan first harpooned the preggers orca for a final epic showdown. 

The movie must certainly sound silly, and it is, but I have to say that I have always loved it, I recognize the inherent silliness of certain scenes and the leaps of logic, but I am also struck by the how much depth it has, for both the orca and the people hunting it, much of this no doubt being bolstered by a wonderfully evocative, sometimes mournful score, from composer Ennio Morricone (Cinema Paradiso). The orca leads them out to see, towards a frozen area known as the Strait of Belle Isle, it picks off the crew one by one until just Nolan and Bedford are left, pushing an iceberg into the ship, which begins to sink, forcing the pair to leave the boat for an the relative safety of an iceberg, leading to the final climactic moments out on the ice. 

The special effects for this one are decent, there are a few ropey opticals, but they really nail the mixing of live-action orcas and rubber/mechanical ones I thought. The use of miniatures are well done, the sinking of Nolan's home and the setting of the pier on fire are particularly well-executed, and I loved the ice bound setting of the finale with frozen ice sheets and icebergs, plus the rubber orca fetus that drops onto the deck of the ship is shocking to say the least. 

The cast is great, Richard Harris  makes for a great Irish-Canadian Captain Ahab out to settle the score with his Moby Orca, he's wonderfully obsessed and in-tune with his own doomed destiny. He's not heartless, he feels remorse for the killing of the pregnant female, but he's obsessed to the nth degree, and dragging his crew to certain death. The steely-eyed Charlotte Rampling (Zardoz) has a nice presence, a sympathetic character who offers some pro-orca sympathies to the stubborn captain, she does good work here, and also serves as the narrator of the story.

The film is certainly a slice of jawsploitation but it never really rips off any specific scene from the movie, it does it's own thing, there are echoes of Spielberg's classic, such as Nolan standing on the  pulpit of his ship readying his harpoon gun, or that the beast this time around is an Orca - the name of Quint's boat from Jaws, or just the fact that they feature a great white shark at the beginning that is killed by the orca, which is a nice little swipe at Jaws. 

Orca (1977) arrives on Region-FREE Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment - though it is erroneously labeled as a Region B locked item - in 1080p HD framed in 2.35:1 scope aspect ratio. There's no information about the provenance of the HD master but it looks quite nice to my eyes, the ocean vistas are crisp and film like, good clarity and depth to the image. There's some very minor wear and tear, we have some white speckling and scratches are, but nothing too bothersome. Audio comes by way of lossless (yes, lossless!) DTS-HD MA Surround 5.1 and Mono 2.0 with Optional English subtitles. This sucker has a fairly great score from Ennio Morricone so I am very pleased that Umbrella went with the lossless audio this time around if only to deepen the fidelity of the score. Dialogue and effects are nicely balanced, everything sound nicely crisp and natural sounding. 

Extras on ths disc include an audio commentary from film historian Lee Gambin which I found jam-packed with information about the film, which was great, loads of production info about the making of the film, the cast and crew and the locations used in making the movie. 
Martha De Laurentiis  shows up for a brief 5-minute remembrance of the film and we get a trailer for the film in HD.   

This single-disc Blu-ray release comes housed in a 16mm spine Blu-ray keepcase with a sleeve of reversible artwork, the reverse side features a variant of the same key artwork minus the rating label. They use the original movie poster artwork, with the landscape framed image wrapping around to the back of the keepcase, very cool. The disc itself features an excerpt of the same image, when the disc is placed in the case it matches the reverse side of the artwork.  

Special Features

- Audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin
- MOBY DICK ala DE LAURENTIIS: Martha De Laurentiis remembers ORCA (5 min) HD 
- Theatrical Trailer (3 MIN) HD

Orca (1977) is a film that gets lumped in with some of the cheesier jaws rip-offs, which is unfortunate, it's a fun flick with a semi-grand scale, epic scenery, and serious talent both in front and behind the camera, it all adds up to a fun watch with a few strange and gruesome detours, but still a heck of an eco-horror entry with a fun Moby Dick role-reversal.

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