Monday, May 14, 2018

Shakma (1990) review


Christopher Atkins (Sam), Amanda Wyss (Tracy), Ari Meyers (Kim), Roddy McDowall (Sorenson), Robb Morris (Gary), Tre Laughlin (Bradley), Greg Flowers (Richard), Ann Kymberlie (Laura)

Directed by Hugh Parks and Tom Logan

The Short Version: SHAKMA, the best of the 'Irate Primate' movies of the late 80s and early 90s, is basically a slasher movie; but instead of a masked killer, it's a batshit baboon putting his stinking paws on a group of med students trapped inside a college after hours. Containing some of the most aggressive animal attack sequences ever captured on camera, the tight editing seamlessly blends the live-action baboon with practical animal effects. Likewise, the acting is surprisingly good even if the human cast gets upstaged by Typhoon the crazed Cercopithecoid. A sorely underrated, effective horror thriller, SHAKMA is some serious monkey business.

Dr. Sorenson and a group of med students operate on a baboon test subject named Shakma using an experimental drug to inhibit the animal's aggressive nature. It has the opposite effect and, after the beast wakes up and goes berserk, Dr. Sorenson decides it's best to put him to sleep... permanently. Sam, the young doctor who was training Shakma, mistakenly injects him with a stimulant. Later that night after the college is closed, Sorenson and six of his students shut off all the lights and lock the doors to enjoy a fantasy role-playing game. Unknown to them, Shakma revives and savagely kills anyone and anything he comes across. As their numbers dwindle, the remaining doctors-in-training must play an all-too real game of survival to escape the building and the bloodthirsty baboon stalking them.

Seeing something like 1990s SHAKMA is a refreshing departure in the age of CGI where, if done today, the use of an animal antagonist would be brought to life entirely in a computer. Working on a 20 day schedule with a real, unpredictable, and very aggressive baboon, co-directors Hugh Parks and Tom Logan get some incredible footage with meager resources. Among the 'Animals Attack' ilk, there haven't been a lot of killer monkey movies, but in the late 80s, several of them assaulted theaters in varying capacity--these being the Kenya-set horror picture, IN THE SHADOW OF KILIMANJARO (1986); Richard Franklin's LINK (1986); and George Romero's MONKEY SHINES (1988). Moreover, an Italian production shot in Miami had an experimental baboon as the catalyst for a zombie "rage" contagion in the utterly insane Umberto Lenzi scripted PRIMAL RAGE (1988).

SHAKMA (1990) is the best of these for a variety of reasons; its success as a horror feature is due in large part to Typhoon, the lovably temperamental animal actor trained by Gerry Therrien (along with his assistant trainer, Steve Martin). Typhoon is just that, a hairy hurricane of fang-toothed fury. The acting by the human cast is much better than this sort of picture normally delivers; and Typhoon overshadows them all. Reportedly, the cast and crew were terrified of him; it's easy to see why once you see him action. His onscreen ferocity likely aided the cast in evoking genuine terror--particularly in Amanda Wyss's performance.

According to co-director Logan, when Typhoon began destroying the set after about eight hours, it was a wrap for the day. Complicating things further, there were only two sets that were redressed over and over again to give the illusion you were inside the medical facility where the film takes place. Naturally, the demolition of sets by the easily agitated star of the film were captured on-camera for use in the movie.

Elsewhere on the commentary track, Director Logan explains that he and some of the crew were hidden behind a protective board during filming. In some shots where Typhoon runs at the camera he was genuinely intending to sink his teeth into whoever was behind it. Animal trainer Gerry Therrien had amazing control over Typhoon with just his words; but to get him agitated (the flickering of his eyebrows means he's about to go into attack mode!), Therrien's assistant was required. Watching Typhoon voraciously assail his human victims it's remarkable what the filmmakers were able to accomplish in the time allotted them.

It's in these attack scenes that SHAKMA earns its keep as a horror picture. Aside from a few jump scares, the film's intensity lies in watching the baboon run around the sets, hurling himself at the doors, furiously bashing his head against them to get at the human on the other side; it has an unsettling effect. Typhoon goes from calm to displaying extreme anger management issues within the span of a few seconds.

Further, it's a testament to the skill of the filmmakers that they were able to capture such potent scenes of horror on such a short shooting schedule with a movie built around the use of a live, very hostile animal. Mike Palma's editing is crucial to the film's high level of suspense. The cuts between the real baboon, a puppet, and an animatronic one keeps your imagination guessing to discern the difference.

The gore is limited, but convincing in certain instances. There's a few messy appliances and some others look like they've simply poured blood on the actor. These desultory shots lessens the power of the violence--considering Shakma is seen ripping and tearing at his victims like cheese shredded in a grater. On a few occasions, the filmmakers may have better served their movie by not showing anything more than a bloody arm or leg and let the viewers imagination create the rest.

All the cast are fantastic, especially Christopher Atkins; both he and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETs Amanda Wyss have genuine onscreen chemistry together. This helps ratchet up the tension in the scenes where Shakma chases them from one room to the next as they try to find a way to exit the building. Atkins started out in big Hollywood pictures like his debut in THE BLUE LAGOON (1980) co-starring with Brooke Shields; and in THE PIRATE MOVIE (1982), a musical where he co-starred with Kristy McNichol; and would later delve into cult film fare including BEAKS: THE MOVIE (1987), DRACULA RISING (1993) and PROJECT SHADOWCHASER III (1995).

The adorable Ari Meyers is likely best remembered for the 80s comedy show KATE & ALLIE (1984-1988). She was 21 when she made SHAKMA, playing a character younger than her actual age. As Kim, a young lady that beams an innocent, virginal quality, she's infatuated with Atkins's character and primed for peril at some point during the running time. Dressed as the princess in need of rescue as per the Nemesis role-playing game, Meyers ironically spends a large portion of the film far away from the danger the rest of the cast finds themselves in.

Still, there are a few surprises viewers may not see coming. The characters--particularly the ones we get to spend the most time with--are all likable to a degree; they're not the stock characters of all your finer slasher pictures.

Seeing the former Cornelius from the original PLANET OF THE APES (briefly) come face to fang with Shakma could be viewed as an in-joke of sorts; and somewhat surreal when put into context of the actor's place in the classic Science Fiction series. McDowall was the defining character of those iconic films and its single-season television program. Even when playing Caesar in the last two films of the original APES series; and Galen in the TV show, it always felt like he was playing Cornelius at different stages of his life. He's not in the movie for very long, but Roddy McDowall's presence brings a lot of prestige to Parks's and Logan's picture.

It might be a low budget movie that was given little fanfare upon its release, but SHAKMA is an underrated, firecracker of a horror picture. Good performances, some solid suspense, tight editing, and a jolting music score by David C. Williams, SHAKMA is shockingly good.

You can purchase this bluray HERE and HERE.

This review is representative of the limited 3,000 pieces Code Red Bluray. Specs and Extras: 1.78:1 16x9 HD Master; Interview with Tom Logan; audio commentary with Tom Logan moderated by David DeCoteau; Katarina Bucketlist Mode; running time: 01:41:09

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Panic (1982) review


David Warbeck (Captain Kirk), Janet Agren (Jane), Roberto Ricci (Professor Adams/Monster), Franco Ressel (Mr. Milton), Jose Lifante (Sgt. O'Brien), Miguel Herrera (Professor Vince)

Directed by Tonino Ricci (as Anthony Richmond)

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***

The Short Version: "Terrible" Tonino Ricci is the mindless master behind this Italo-Spanish trash that contaminates slasher, monster, and disaster movie cliches. The fallout brings an inescapable amount of unintentional comedy best appreciated by viewers jonesing for a 90 minute camp crap cocktail. If you've savored any of director Ricci's other celluloid catastrophes you already know what you're ordering on the menu. Italian cinema fave David Warbeck plays Captain Kirk; only not the Federation's galactic Casanova who constantly bluffs his way out of ultimate destruction, but a detective trailing what looks like a cross between the Chlorophyll Monster and The Brainiac. Despite a vacuous script, Warbeck manages to keep his composure. Elsewhere, Euro horror scream queen Janet Agren manages to keep her clothes on. Still, there's gratuitous gore and guffaws aplenty in this minor-league NIGHTMARE CITY so don't PANIC.

When a germ warfare experiment at the incontrovertibly named Chemi-Cal corporation goes awry, a scientist working on the mysterious Plurima Project disappears. Not long after, a mutated half-human monster with claws, shambles around the sewers of a small English village--surfacing to rip its victims apart and drink their blood. A detective and a lady scientist try to find the monster to end its killing spree. Meanwhile, corporate big wigs decide one rampaging rat man is reason enough to implement Plan Q (Plan 9 wasn't available) to bomb the entire town into oblivion.

There's no escaping it. PANIC is a terrible movie--in virtually every way. Imagine NIGHTMARE CITY (1980)--which is basically a minor league version of Lenzi's movie--having to settle with but a single irradiated vampire creature, while never satisfactorily explaining anything, and you have something resembling PLACIDITY more than a PANIC. 

If you're familiar with Tonino Ricci's work, when you see his name in the credits you know what you're getting. Every genre he touches he destroys... but in a good way if you can enjoy atrocious movies. He savaged the Wild West with KID TERROR OF THE WEST (1973); soured SciFi-adventure with ENCOUNTERS IN THE DEEP (1979); pillaged barbarian fantasy in THOR THE CONQUEROR (1983); brought a reckoning to the post-nuke flicks with RUSH (1983); and poached the killer shark sub-genre in NIGHT OF THE SHARKS (1987) to name a few.

With PANIC, he mutilates a few genres at once--melding slasher and 1950s monster motifs with 1970s eco-horror. We have the killer POV shots, the theme of sex equals death, and even a PSYCHO-style shower murder; a decently rendered mutant by Rino Carboni (played by the director's son, Roberto Ricci) inspires comparison with BLOOD ISLAND's Chlorophyll Monster and Mexico's infamous Brainiac; the strain of eco-horror stretches back to George Romero's THE CRAZIES (1973); another film that PANIC resembles in addition to other similarly themed 'viral outbreak' pictures. It's worth mentioning that 1985s WARNING SIGN feels like a bigger budgeted, better written, more stable do-over of Ricci's movie.

The script by Victor A. Catena and Jaime Comas is incredibly stupid even by bad movie standards. Even more surprising than how awful the script turned out is that both Catena and Comas were among the five writers on Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). They also collaborated with other writers on Lenzi's action-packed SANDOKAN sequel, SANDOKAN, THE PIRATE OF MALAYSIA (1964). With both being the sole authors on the credits of PANIC, their script not only sacrifices logic for thinly veiled political subtext; but it has more holes than the monster's numerous pus-dripping orifices.

Watching the movie, it often feels like two different films were being made; with the "best" of both edited together without any regard for continuity or common sense. PANIC fumbles from one scene to the next with its disjointed narrative; coupled with a budget too low to bring a modicum of justice to the patchwork of better movies it wants to glorify. Ricci's patently lousy direction ensures zero interest by anyone other than the most dedicated Euro-horror aficionados digging deep to find a nugget of bad movie gold; and PANIC accommodates them with a bumper crap of badness. 

Below is a list of PANIC's inept highlights that, if you appreciate movies that are enjoyable because of how terrible they are, should determine whether or not you'll want to add it to your collection.

1. Rats were a prominent feature in trashy Italian movies of this era. Italy's preeminent Kingpin of reprobate cinema, Bruno Mattei, used them in HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) as a lazy plot device to start the spread of flesh-eating zombie contagion. Mattei struck again in 1984's Post A-crap-alyptic RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR. Like Mattei before him, Ricci and his team can't even conjure up a reason for how his virus escapes; well, the script can't make up its mind if there's even a virus at all.

2. In normal society, if there's a criminal on the loose, it's all over the news and radio. In Ricci's movie, the police hit upon the brilliant idea that keeping news of a "homicidal maniac" on the streets from the press and public will somehow keep people safer.

3. In one of the attack scenes, a hot and bothered couple don't mind having sex among the patrons in a movie theater watching a picture even worse than the one we're watching; it's some guy driving down the road in his car accompanied by a horrendous Casio soundtrack.  The young lady about to be fully naked from the waist up pulls her boyfriend's hand out of her flimsy tank-top and says if he wants anything more he'll have to earn it. She's a cheap date, though, and only requires he get her an ice cream from the shop down the street (an act of mercy considering what's transpiring onscreen inside the theater). Meanwhile, the monster, stumbling around in the back of the theater, hears the awful music of whatever the hell it is the people are watching and rips through the theater screen in a scene DEMONS (1985) did much better a few years later. Everybody flees except for the sultry woman waiting on her ice cream; guess it was worth the risk being mauled by our goop-covered man-rat.

4. The script can't decide if a virus has been unleashed or not. We keep hearing about it and yet everyone killed by our walking pus monster with the pulsating cranium never get up and kill. We hear about the supposedly acidic, radiation-infused green goo the monster has dripping off of him... Captain Kirk (yes, that's the lead character's name) stupidly puts his hands in it, and nearly gets mauled in an attack by the monster; but nothing happens to him either.

5. While that fickle plot point plays out, there's the pharmaceutical company's bright idea of wiping the town off the face of the Earth to protect the company's interests; yet it's just one mutant guy doing all the damage. It's clear none of the townsfolk--living or dead--are affected by the so-called contaminant leak. Wouldn't the clean up and rebuilding cost more money than to simply send a team in to test the inhabitants? The writers seem more interested in clumsily inserted political posturing over a virus that the script can't decide exists or not.

6. When the military cordon off entry and exit to the town, a mob of people attempt to leave anyway. After the military commander tells everyone to go back to their homes, two guys--one of whom is armed with a shotgun--decide to drive through the blockade anyway. Naturally, this doesn't go over very well. The military open fire and the car crashes into some flimsy wooden boards that cause the car to inexplicably explode. The driver doesn't make it out but the flame-engulfed passenger does and is noticeably unfamiliar with 'stop, drop, and roll'. Kirk and O'Brien then leave the guy there while his friend's corpse burns in the car; when asked how the fellow is, Warbeck replies with, "nothing serious!"

7. Sergeant O'Brien, the excellent tactician that he is, decides it's best to flood the sewer tunnels with poisonous gas. Captain Kirk (who, at least on STAR TREK, was a genuinely excellent tactician) agrees with this plan. Both men seem to forget this a few minutes later when they go into the sewers to kill the monster and nearly choke to death in the process.

8. Since bullets prove ineffective against Rat-men (SABATA's Franco Ressel somehow manages to empty 4 shells from a double-barreled shotgun into the monster), Captain Kirk equips himself with a fire extinguisher with a biohazard symbol on it for the maximum in rodent disintegration. Kirk tells Professor Vince he needs "two units of Necron". The professor seems shocked Kirk knows about this apparently Top Secret chemical. We're just as confused as he is considering we've not heard of it till now... and we never do find out what it is. Judging by the final confrontation, Necron has a corrosive effect when it comes into contact with living tissue. Apparently, Necron was used on the script as well.

9. As is always the case in movies where a timer ticks downward, threatening destruction of the protagonists or catastrophe of a larger scale, the danger is averted always within the last seconds; not in PANIC. They have 12 minutes to spare when the bomb drop is called off; the relief on the pilots' faces--two of the worst actors in history--evokes laughter before an end credit card copies the one seen in Lenzi's NIGHTMARE CITY finale. They even screw up the timer. 4:48am changes to 4:49am thirty seconds after it's supposed to.

10. At one point, the monster literally shows his ass. Displaying plumber's crack while on a sewer sojourn, a minor goof reveals the monster's gluteus maximus is impervious to contamination. As far as movie monsters go, Roberto Ricci does a good imitation of the slow-moving creatures seen in any of your finer of the lesser 1950s monster pictures. As mentioned earlier, Rino Carboni's (who worked on some high profile westerns including some of Leone's and Sollima's best) monster makeup is effective with the stringy white hair and Melting Man appliances--seen to greater effect during the no-holds barred finale.

Amazingly, PANIC does have a few irrefutably good things in it; one of these is the energetic finale where Warbeck squares off against the monster. Further, some of the shots in the sewers are lit remarkably well and afford Ricci's movie some much needed atmosphere.

The director does try for some blasphemous symbolism in one of the attack scenes. The monster lays siege to a church to get at a group of altar boys and a priest. Sacrificing himself so the boys can escape, the priest is killed in a way mimicking Christ on the Cross--impaled on a spike railing through his neck and hands; the camera ascending to show an illuminated cross above him. Aside from these bits, PANIC revels in its inadequacies.

David Warbeck is another bright spot along with cult film siren Janet Agren. Warbeck had a lengthy career working in Europe--particularly in Italian schlock. Some of his Italian horror, action and fantasy works are sublime, while many are just substandard. PANIC has no standards at all. The bacteria-suffering script gives the man little to sustain himself--acting as a half-cooked Dirty Harry Callahan-type character--walking from one scene to the next waving his pistol when he needs attention.

Agren has less to do, rarely leaving the lab set where she's attempting to develop a cure for Adams' mutant malady. Both Warbeck and Agren worked well together and co-starred again in another killer rodent flick, RAT MAN from 1988.

PANIC's dubbed version is a riot, making the schlock oozing from the screen even more palatable. In the original Italian language included on this bluray, the film takes itself deadly serious. Regarding the Italian version, the opening has a narrator setting up the story; unfortunately, no subs are provided for this opening voiceover (but the rest of the movie is subbed with dubtitles). During this sequence on the English track, the opening dialog is replaced by Marcello Giombini's main theme.

In the right mindset, PANIC is a good deal of fun. Having never looked as good as it does on this bluray release helps a lot if you've only ever saw murky VHS releases. If nothing else, Tonino Ricci, the auteur of awful, is not only consistent in making tripe, but entertaining tripe. Mildly engaging because of its silly, Z-grade quality horror, and incomprehensible from start to finish, PANIC's sewer setting is metaphoric of its place in the Euro-sleaze pantheon.

This review is representative of the Code Red bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p HD 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English dubbed version; Italian with English subtitles; trailers; running time: 01:33:22

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