Orcas and Plague Bats and Bears, Oh My!

Genesis 1:26 may have proclaimed that humans would have dominion over the beasts of the Earth, but filmmakers have constantly wondered about how and when the beasts may beat back. And in the latter half of the ‘70s, fueled by the unprecedented success of Jaws and serious discussions about conservation and natural resources, animal attack movies were as frequent in cinemas as ants at a picnic. And on Wednesday & Thursday, January 29th & 30th, New Beverly is presenting an eco-horror triple feature of mammalian massacres!

The rampage begins with a literal apex predator, the killer whale, in Michael Anderson’s 1977 Orca. When grizzled Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) causes the death of a pregnant female orca and its child in full view of its mate, a war of escalation begins that claims the lives of his friends and endangers the fishing village where he lives. Nolan is advised by expert Dr. Bedford (Charlotte Rampling) that as orcas possess intellect and emotion equal to humans, this one is bent to destroy him in retaliation for the loss of his family. With the doctor and the remains of his crew in tow, Nolan follows the whale to its own ice-ridden turf to finish out their blood feud, and determine which will be the sole survivor.



It would appear the only person who was not enthused at the phenomenon of Jaws was producer Dino De Laurentiis, perhaps because Spielberg’s film was still playing in theatres in 1976 when he was trying to build anticipation for his expensive remake of King Kong, or maybe because he had expended even more money in lawyer and court fees against its studio Universal over who would have the right to make a new Kong in the first place. But the man who infamously claimed, “No one cry when Jaws die…when the monkey die, people gonna cry,” was determined to get one over on the Great White. While Kong was still in development and Jaws was breaking records, De Laurentiis rang up screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni and charged him with the job of finding a stronger rival fish to write a movie about, and with frequent collaborator Sergio Donati, came up with the Moby Dick-style saga that made the confident producer claim, as quoted in Spy magazine in 1989 “I have a vision: Dino’s whale will eat Spielberg’s shark.” The production, which by some accounts cost almost twice as much as Jaws, returned a modest $14 million in North America during its July 1977 release. In tandem with the ape and the whale, De Laurentiis developed yet another monster drama in 1975 by acquiring the rights to Richard Sale’s Western fantasy The White Buffalo. The 1977 J. Lee Thompson film, made after Kong and released before Orca, starred Charles Bronson as Wild Bill Hickok and Will Sampson, who also appeared in Orca, as Crazy Horse, the rivals joined together in chasing the large mythic bovine.

While advertising for Orca would have viewers believe that the killer whale is capable of seeking revenge, science is mostly not convinced of this concept. Eighteenth century attacks on whaling ships, including the sinking of the Essex in 1821 and the frequent skirmishes with an albino named Mocha Dick that inspired Herman Melville’s novel, are generally believed to have been either accidents due to the whales’ use of sound rather than vision to identify what surrounds them, or acts of self-defense, the whales thrashing about after being harpooned. However, whales do possess intelligence comparable to humans, and are able to adapt and identify behavior from them that allow for actions like recognizing boat engines and interfering with fishing lines. And Shane Gero, a behavioral ecologist at Aarhaus University’s institute for bioscience, has not completely ruled out the possibility of “vengeance,” saying “Given what we know about elephant grieving and trauma, it’s interesting to think about what social impact whaling had on this generation of whales.”

The program shifts from the ice floes of the Northeast to the Native American reservations of the Southwest in Arthur Hiller’s 1979 Nightwing. A peculiar spate of domesticated animal deaths are investigated by Maskai tribal deputy Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso), and draws the attention of eccentric British scientist Philip Payne (David Warner). Walker Chee (Stephen Macht), the chief of the more affluent Pahana tribe nearby, pressures Duran to keep the matter out of the press to help facilitate a lucrative deal that would involve mining oil from caves on sacred Maskai land. Payne determines that vampire bats carrying bubonic plague have been the source of the deaths, and Duran begins to suspect that their presence may be tied to the last rites of Abner (George Clutesi), the outcast medicine man that was his longtime parental surrogate.



Nightwing originated as a novel by mystery novelist Martin Cruz Smith, who adapted the book into a screenplay in collaboration with J.W. Coop and Kid Blue screenwriter Bud Shrake and novelist/screenwriter Steve Shagan, writer of Save the Tiger. The project marked the fourth time that producer Martin Ransohoff and director Arthur Hiller worked together; their previous films were The Wheeler Dealers, The Americanization of Emily, and Silver Streak. Prolific Canadian actor Nick Mancuso had earlier provided the voice of mysterious killer “Billy” in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas before being cast in this film for his first leading man role. Kathryn Harrold, playing Duran’s med student girlfriend Anne, is probably best remembered as the on/off girlfriend of Albert Brooks in his comedy Modern Romance, and the doctor investigating paranormally-gifted patient Zeljko Ivanek in Roger Christian’s The Sender, cited by Quentin Tarantino as his favorite 1982 horror film.

It’s back east to the rockbound forests of Maine for the conclusion of this animal onslaught, John Frankenheimer’s 1979 Prophecy. Hired by the EPA to document conflict between Native Americans and a large paper mill, Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth) and his wife Maggie (Talia Shire) are drawn into the investigation of missing lumberjacks and the crew initially sent for them. The Natives insist that a vengeful spirit creature, Katahdin, is responsible. And as the Vernes discover an increasing assortment of mutated abominations in their reporting, the possibility that Katahdin is real, really large, and really angry, becomes all too plausible.



Before becoming the lauded screenwriter of films as The Omen, Lucas, and Punchline, David Seltzer made various creative contributions to nature-based documentaries for National Geographic, Jacques Cousteau, and other organizations. Themes in his Prophecy screenplay likely have roots in those works, as well as his earlier screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1972 speculative documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle, which suggested that insects would be better equipped to outlive humans on Earth. When John Frankenheimer signed on the project, he instigated unusually high secrecy measures to keep the plot and monster from being spoiled: the cast were only allowed to read the script in Frankenheimer’s office, the crew were made to sign NDAs, and a former CIA operative was put in charge of security. Despite some early negative press, the strategy worked, and curious audiences made the film a hit in its June 1979 release. George Clutesi, who played the rogue Maskai cleric in Nightwing, appears here as well, again portraying a Native character. Among the players taking turns inside the Katahdin costume were Tom McLoughlin, who went on to direct Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, and Kevin Peter Hall, who portrayed other giant creatures in Harry and the Hendersons and the first two Predator movies, and also acted on the TV shows “Misfits of Science” and “227;” legendary cartoon voice artist Frank Welker provided the monster’s various utterances.

When mankind oversteps its bounds upon the natural order, nature stomps back. So come close out January at the New Beverly by watching three roaring adventures reminding you to tread lightly.

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