We begin somewhere in the bowels of the science building at the Addison Polytechnical Institute, where some dubious animal experiments are coming to a head. A baboon’s head to be more precise as a professor Sorenson (McDowall) finishes drilling a hole in the primate’s skull so his assistant, Richard (Flowers), can directly inject some Corticotropin directly into its brain matter in an effort to soothe the primal instincts of one of the most vicious animals on the planet (-- well, according to the back of the DVD case it is.) And from what little I read and understood about the drug on Wikipedia, what they’re trying will not work so, yeah, this is probably all gonna end in fire.
During the whole operation, Richard, in an ever-escalating effort to suck-up to his teacher, keeps pestering Sorenson about participating in ‘the game.’ Sorenson, seeing right through this, informs Richard it's not his decision to make but Sam’s, a fellow student, who set it all up. What is this game they speak of? Well, we’ll get to that in a second. For now, cut to the specimen room, where Sam (Atkins) appears to be the head wrangler of all the animals caged up in there, destined to be experimented on, where he is currently involved in a romantic kerfuffle with his girlfriend, Tracy (Wyss). This is interrupted when Richard wheels in the still anesthetized baboon, whom Sam recognizes as Shakma, one of his favorite critters, and is none to happy about it being experimented on. (Dude, do YOU ever have the wrong job.)
E’yup. We’re dealing with some kind of Dungeons and Dragons knock-off. And not just some K-Mart version, either. We’re talking a live-action, first person spell-caster (-- with the serial numbers filed off enough so TSR couldn’t sue). Seems instead of just sitting around a table, Sam has talked Sorenson, a fellow gamer, into letting them use the whole science building as an ersatz tabletop -- six whole stories worth of makeshift mazes and dungeons, with clues to unravel, weapons to gather, and treasures to be found on each floor. To make this work, Sam employed fellow nerd, tech-guru, and gum-chewing enthusiast Bradley (Laughlin) to rig up some contrivances -- sorry, I mean, digital trackers and one-way walkie-talkies that will only allow each gamer to communicate with the [Not the Dungeon Master but the] Game-Master, Sorenson, who will track them all on a monitor and prompt them along, with the winner being whoever solves all the riddles, collects all the artifacts, and avoids the Nemesis and reaches the top floor first, where a princess awaits to be rescued.
Thus, the game is set to start that evening once the building is cleared out and locked-up for the weekend. But before all of that happens, Richard relieves a distraught Sam of the grisly task of disposing of Shakma’s corpse. And he’s just about to chuck the body into the incinerator when those disaster dominoes keep falling as Sorenson just happens to wander in at that exact moment and stops him; seems he wants to perform an autopsy to try and salvage some data from this failed experiment. Thus, the presumed dead Shakma is left unattended and unrestrained in the darkened specimen room. And later that night, as our principles gather below to start the game, Shakma wakes up good and pissed and clandestinely slaughters all the other animals in the lab (-- a startling effective off-camera moment played out with distressed animal sounds). Thus and so, with no idea what is awaiting them several floors above, the players are set, the maze is set, and the clues are waiting. Let the game begin...
One of the most disturbing things I have ever seen in a nature documentary was a group of chimpanzees running down another species of monkey in the jungle, catching it, and after a brief pause, as the camera zoomed in on the look of sheer terror in the captured prey’s eyes, these primates rapidly tore it asunder, shredding it in a plume of blood and viscera, and eventually consuming it. (Thank you, PBS.) Of course there have been many documented cases where chimps have attacked humans. There’s the infamous case out of Connecticut, where a domesticated chimp named Travis went berserk and mauled a woman, destroying her face and hands in the process. (I recall the 911 operator wouldn’t believe the owner until she started screaming “He’s eating her!”) Another finds a California couple who adopted a chimp named Moe but later had to turn him over to a sanctuary when he got too big, where they were then attacked by two escaped chimps while visiting their “baby” with the husband losing most of his face, fingers and genitals in the process.
What I’ve taken from all of this is, essentially, chimpanzees are assholes. Now, our film today does not concern a chimp but a baboon, which are most known for their massive fangs and terrifying toothy grimace, it’s comically red rear-end, and a well-earned reputation for being one of the most aggressive animals on the planet. One of the most notorious accounts of this animal comes from Africa circa 1984 during the massive drought (-- the same drought that spawned Band-Aid and Live-Aid), which resulted in large packs of starving baboons to brazenly attack several Kenyan villages and kill dozens of natives in a search for food. This incident was put to film with In the Shadows of Kilimanjaro (1986), but while the trailer looks amazing, from what I’ve read, the actual film is a whole six-pack of squandered opportunity.
Sands of the Kalahari (1965), on the other hand, is pretty great with Stuart Whitman coming down with a terminal case of alpha-maleitus as a group of plane wreck survivors try to stay alive while marooned in the wilds of Africa, with Whitman going all Ahab, in a Leslie Nielson, Day of the Animals (1977), sense, when he tries to appoint himself leader of a pack of vicious baboons. (Alas, even though that fantastic Frank McCarthy poster art promises us one thing, no baboon ever takes up an axe in the movie. Boo!) Another group of baboons attacked Lee Remick’s car in The Omen (1978) when they sniffed out the Anti-Christ. And then there’s Shakma (1990), where a baboon essentially serves as a surrogate for Jason Vorhees as this lab animal systematically kills off a group of college students locked in a building, turning the tables by making them the unwitting rats in a maze, as they blow a Friday night playing out some fantasy game.
But before their flesh hits his fangs, these Quest Knights gather on the ground floor, consisting of Sam, Tracy, Bradley and their friend, Gary (Morris), with Richard hiding somewhere several floors up as the Nemesis, and his little sister, Kim (Meyers), playing the role of the princess waiting on the top floor, who has a not-so-secret crush on Sam, which serves no real purpose except to be exploited as some filler later on; and finally, Sorenson, ensconced in his office on the fifth floor with a pile of radios on his desk and a rudimentary digital version of the playing field on his computer monitor. And to up the ante a bit, the Knights place a wager on who will win with each pitching $500 into the pot. And what kind of college student has that kind of scratch lying around to waste on something like this? Well, that’s me shrugging right now. As to who wins? Well, Spoilers Ahoy from here on out.
Despite the kit-bashed nature, this elaborate game actually makes some sense and progresses rather smoothly until the first player reaches the fourth floor, where what’s left of the specimen lab is located. Hearing what he thinks is Nemesis lurking inside, Bradley heads in, tossing his magic neutralizing glitter as he goes. Finding the place torn to pieces, Bradley barely has time to react to this before he is attacked and killed, his throat ripped out, before he can call for help. When Sorenson can’t raise him on the radio, thinking it's just some technical glitch, he orders Richard to break character and go check on him, which he does, heading to Bradley’s last known location where he is also attacked by Shakma. But this latest victim manages to take temporary refuge in a closet with a handy jug of hydrochloric acid. Armed with a beaker full of corrosive liquid, then, Richard makes a break for the door, is attacked, and his defense strategy completely backfires when all of that acid winds up splashed onto his own face.
Meanwhile, as their friends gooily dissolve or are slowly being consumed by a rabid ape one floor up, Sam and Tracy also break character when these two errant Knights pause for some *ahem* ‘savage manhood lancing’ on top of a desk. Two floors up, unable to contact anyone, Sorenson takes the elevator down to level four to see what happened to his missing players. He finds what’s left of Richard and beats feet back to the elevator so he can warn everyone else that something has gone staggeringly awry.
Alas, Shakma charges from out of the darkness and mauls him before the elevator doors can close; and with his body now blocking said doors, the lone elevator has now been rendered useless. Below, rousted from their nookie time-out by all that noise, as they try to head up, Sam and Tracy can hear the elevator door pinging as it fails to close. Forced to take the stairs, they soon find out why the lift is currently out of order: Sorenson, his face now gone, completely chewed away.
From there, things really hit the fan as the film ratchets things up, tension wise, with a deadly game of cat and mouse as Shakma chases the surviving players from room to room, turning himself into a battering ram, with nothing but a series of flimsy doors that won’t lock between them! Now, my understanding is that the name Shakma is probably derived from chacma, a species of baboon that was featured in some of those trailers I linked to earlier. However, it should be pointed out the baboon in Shakma is not a chacma at all but a hamadryas, which can be easily identified by his balding noggin and Larry Fine hairdo (-- and no surgical scars, I might add). Sadly, one should also note that Typhoon, our starring baboon, has had his canines and several other teeth removed (-- like those much ballyhooed ‘live sharks’ in Mako: Jaws of Death), which kind of makes all those close-ups look less like a savage simian and more like a cranky old coot who wants someone to get off his lawn.
But it is the frenzied scenes where the film truly excels, where the baboon goes, forgive me, completely ape-shit while trying to get at someone. Apparently, to achieve these scenes, the animal wranglers brought in a female baboon in heat and placed her on the other side of the target door. The end result you see on film, which are ah-mazing, and this method is usually backed up by the appearance of the baboon’s very obvious erection which cannot be unnoticed once you spot his dingus flopping around. (And you see it. A lot.) Also of note, I have an apocryphal memory of Wings Hauser (I think) appearing on some daytime talk show many, many years ago where he talked about how his family used to live across the street from Bob “Gilligan” Denver’s house, who apparently owned a monkey of some kind, and when it was his sisters' time of the month and the wind was blowing in the right direction, they could hear said monkey completely losing his shit. This tale holds water, too, as during the filming of Shakma any female who was menstruating at the time was barred from the set. The actors were also warned by the handlers to never look the baboon in the eye or smile as both are considered acts of aggression that need to be answered. And when you combine all of that baited live-action stuff with some well-executed stuffed puppet attacks the film packs a surprising punch even though we never get to see any actual rending just the bloody aftermath.
Now, at this point, you’re probably asking yourself, Why don’t they just leave? A very legitimate question indeed. Good job, class. Yes, they’re locked inside the building with no access to any phones (-- all locked inside offices), and yes they could probably just break out a window on the ground floor and escape, but this they do not do because, to their credit, they aren’t sure the others are, despite all obvious evidence, dead and want to drag them to safety first before Shakma finishes them off. Which is why we can kinda-sorta forgive Sam for constantly sending his girlfriend out as bait to lure Shakma away while he checks on the bodies. And the only boneheaded move our heroes really make is when they finally switch frequencies on the walkie-talkies and contact Gary, who still thinks they’re playing the game, and they don’t immediately warn him about the killer monkey, allowing him to blunder onto the killing floor, and whose death now allows Shakma access to the elevator, meaning no floor is safe. (Yes. The monkey can work an elevator. Yes. I know. We, as a species are doomed. Well, at least I think he can, otherwise how in the hell he moved between floors as the film barrels toward the climax is beyond me. Anyhoo...)
Thinking Shakma is still trapped on level four, Sam and Tracy split up; Sam heads to the top floor to round up Kim while Tracy heads to five to look for Bradley since they never saw his body in the lab, where she runs right into Shakma. And sadly, turns out the woman’s restroom and a toilet stall makes for a crappy refuge from one determined baboon. Her efforts are valiant but nope.
Alas, after Tracy’s death Shakma kinda loses its way as the killer monkey essentially disappears for nearly twenty minutes as the film loses focus and all momentum, wasting too much time on the uncomfortable efforts of Kim’s blatant and juvenile efforts to seduce Sam, and Kim’s later and equally futile efforts to draw the attention of Richard’s girlfriend parked outside the building as, I swear, we watch her toss every, single, piece, of cutlery, from the faculty lounge out the window. This entire scene is then repeated later with a bunch of ‘magic’ marbles. When this proves fruitless, Kim leaves a note for Sam and heads off to find her brother since Sam couldn’t bring himself to tell her Richard was dead; a terrible and tragic mistake that winds up getting Kim killed, too.
Sam, meanwhile, is looking for Tracy, following a blood trail that eventually leads to her body. This, obviously, hits him pretty hard. He then tracks Kim to the lab and finds her dead, too. And as the last man standing, Sam decides it’s time to settle this, mano a monkeyo, once and for all.
His plan is two fold, but when his first electrical flytrap fails, Shakma pounces and savages Sam pretty good, taking out a good chunk of his neck. But his last trap is actually pretty keen, sadly given away in the trailer, using the baboon’s own aggression against him, tricking him into launching himself into the incinerator, where Shakma is burned alive rather gruesomely. But this appears to be a pyrrhic victory as Sam stumbles into the hall, collapses, and declares, “I win” to a stuffed monkey lying on the floor before he apparently expires, too. Game over.
Hooray! Everybody’s dead! Yeah, whenever I introduce people to Shakma I say it’s a movie where a killer monkey interrupts a live-action game of D'n'D and murders everyone. And when it's over, I say, What part of the ‘monkey murders everyone’ did you not understand?
Now, when you combine that downer ending, the poor man's nods to Die Hard (1988) with the high-rise setting, the novelty of a killer monkey, resulting in a nice twist on the slasher genre, I’m honestly surprised Shakma isn’t better known or better remembered than it is. Bad timing, maybe? The horror genre was drying up theatrically as the 1980s ended, where it languished until Scream (1996) hit and reignited this kind of body count flick. It’s a terribly flawed movie, make no mistake, but I still think there is enough juice there for a passable cult movie status. And in this day and age of geekdom and LARPing there’s probably a whole brand new audience for this movie out there that just needs to find it, I’d bet.
The film was the brain-child of Hugh Parks, a former aerospace executive who founded Quest Studios in 1986. Based out of Florida, Parks had written, directed and produced a couple of features [After School (1988), Deadly Innocents (1989)] before tackling this killer monkey flick. For the script he turned to Roger Engle, which, aside from that dark ending, holds no real surprises, and who basically fell off the cinematic map after this.
In fact, Parks had two latter-day slasher flicks in production at the same time, Shakma and the more traditional The Night Brings Charlie (1990), which was directed by Tom Logan, whom Parks recruited to co-direct Shakma once he found himself in over his head. And while the direction is lackluster, the mundane cookie-cutter sets add nothing, and a script that requires characters to be THAT stupid and is leaking logic badly from the get-go, the film is salvaged somewhat by some brilliant sound design and David C. Williams’ frenzied electronic score; the enticed performance of the baboon, so kudos to animal trainers Gerry Therrien and Steve Martin; some outstanding production design by Michael Larson, Eric Gustafson, and Terry Alan Meads (-- I loved all the trails of bloody paw prints Shakma leaves behind); and some delightful grue, make-up effects, and faux monkey-props courtesy of Rick Gonzales and Lee Grimes.
The film had a budget of $1.5 million and was shot between January and March of 1990 at the newly christened Universal Studios in Orlando, which was really trying to establish itself as a major player and had just landed Nickelodeon, who pulled up stakes from New York and Philadelphia and relocated to these brand new facilities and launched a whole new era of programming. In fact, one of Shakma’s victims, Robb Edward Morris, had hosted the short-lived Nickelodeon game show, Make the Grade (1989). The rest of the cast is okay, they’re just not written very well with nothing to do except wander around endlessly and in circles until the monkey shreds them and, for the most part, the audience is eagerly begging for all of them to meet an untimely end. I will say this, though: every single one of them sold the hell out of being attacked by a stuffed monkey.
Christopher Atkins never really was much of an actor, even back in his The Pirate Movie (1982) and Blue Lagoon (1980) days, but he serves well enough as the nominal hero; even though everything that happens is basically all his fault or an end result of his blundering. I personally hooked my car to Amanda Wyss, who is so adorable I can’t even even, and whom we all probably remember as Tina in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), or at least her gravity-defying demise in that film. And always the trooper, Roddy McDowell gives it his all while he spent three whole days to get his part in the can. But the best actor in the whole movie is Typhoon the horny baboon, giving one of the most insanely intense performances I have ever seen by an animal. This also wasn’t his first feature either, as Typhoon first appeared several years earlier as the hero’s trusty sidekick in Order of the Black Eagle (1986), where he got to wear a tuxedo, make obscene gestures, fly a glider, and drive a tank. Of COURSE I’m not making that up.
I honestly don’t know if Parks tried to latch onto a major studio for distribution and failed but I do know Shakma managed to eke out a brief theatrical release through Castle Hill in October of 1990 before it was quickly transferred to VHS tape and shipped off to video stores under Quest’s equally short-lived home-video line, where it’s kind of languished ever since. It might even be in the public domain now as several prints can be found on YouTube. I am happy to report that Code Red has the film out on DVD and BluRay that restores the film to its original aspect ratio. Though for some reason, the commentary track by co-director Tom Logan is only available on the limited edition Bluray. That’s me shrugging again.
Stuck in the nebulous gray area of being not quite horror and not quite schlock, Shakma is ultimately undone, I think, by its running time. Clocking in at nearly two hours (-- it honestly feels like three), the film is just too damned long and cannot sustain the novelty of the monkey’s rampage and killing spree. Here, the film fails in editing and suffers terribly from Kitchen Sink Syndrome in that since they shot the footage they’d best use all of it -- pace be damned. That whole twenty minutes I mentioned after Tracy died could and should go, and another five to ten minutes snipped here and there and I think you’d have a really lean and mean 80-minute masterpiece of gonzo cinema here instead of the poo-flinging slog we got. I still like Shakma well enough but, man, we really could’ve had something truly unique here.
This post is my entry for Cinematic Catharsis' Nature's Fury Blogathon, where when we say "It's a disaster" or "It bites" it doesn't quite mean what you think it means. Honest. Thanks to our gracious host for throwing out such a wide net for participants, and now, Boils and Ghouls, please follow the linkage and check out all the other outstanding entries, please and thank you!
Shakma (1990) Castle Hill Productions :: Quest Entertainment / P: Hugh Parks / D: Hugh Parks, Tom Logan / W: Roger Engle / C: Andrew Bieber / E: Mike Palma / M: David C. Williams / S: Christopher Atkins, Amanda Wyss, Roddy McDowall, Ari Meyers, Robb Edward Morris, Tre Laughlin, Greg Flowers, Typhoon the Baboon