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

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