Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Old Movie Review - Shakma (1990)

1990.  The end of the 80's.  The beginning of...  who the hell knows.  I slept through the 90's.  I think everyone else did, too.  it was a thoroughly uninspiring decade.

But I got to see Shakma again today.  Haven't seen it in years, since it did a run on HBO way back when, but I couldn't even remember the title until today.  But before I get into that, a quick set up of the movie.

Shakma is a baboon.  We don't really get to see how Shakma is before the surgery, when Dr. Sorenson (played by Roddy McDowell!  I missed seeing him on screen, didn't even remember he was in this, but it was a pleasant surprise) was injecting some sort of substance directly into his brain right after the opening credits.  So here's the deal.  Dr. Sorenson is, obviously, a research doctor teaching at a Biology building located at some sort of city campus.  I know this because there are city streets outside the building that they keep showing, where all the action is apparently going on.  So, Dr. Sorenson and some of his lab assistants / students have this game they play.  Since this is the late 80's early 90's, this game is a composite of role playing and computer game.  You don't ever really get to figure out the rules of this game, only that several of the students are involved, it's a secret, and it's pretty nerdy.  Basically, they each try to decipher clues that they find and somehow rescue the princess, who apparently resides at the top of the building.  The character of Sam, played by Christopher Atkins, had been training Shakma, trying to tame it.  Apparently, baboons are the most feral of monkeys, or the most violent, something or other.  They certainly have some mean canines.  So, to make a long story short, Dr. Sorenson tries to inject Shakma with what he hopes is a brain serum that will calm the monkey down.  The serum is, unfortunately, still unstable, but Dr. Sorenson believes this version of the serum will be both more stable and more effective.  He is, as you may have guessed, quite mistaken, and this is where our story begins.

Shakma wakes up in one of the labs, where it (I don't know if Shakma is male or female, quite honestly) proceeds to terrorize several of the students, who are hanging around the building in order to begin the game planned for that evening, before Sam can inject it with some tranquilizer, putting it to sleep.  Dr. Sorenson arrives and is immediately aware of what has happened.  Distressed by the obvious failure of his months of research work on the serum, Dr. Sorenson makes a snap (but perhaps correct) judgement.  Put the animal down, and figure out what went wrong in the morning, after tonight's game.  Dr. Sorenson is that coolest of professors.  Not only a good instructor, but liked by his students, and in this movie, the Game Master, who oversees the game that the students are playing.  Sam, who originally came up with the game, is ordered by Dr. Sorenson to put the animal down with an overdose of the same tranquilizer he used to subdue it.

Now here's where things get fuzzy.  I can understand Sam's desire NOT to put the animal down.  He was training it, they didn't ask him which animal to use for the next serum test, and he hopes to be able to control it even though it's been injected with an unstable serum that has made it much more aggressive.  What I don't get is what happens next.  He injects the sleeping baboon with something else, something that apparently just makes it LOOK like the baboon is dead.  I'm not sure what he hopes to accomplish by doing this, since he's about to partake in a long game that may last overnight, and he's not going to be around once the animal awakens.  And then, to make matters worse, he lets Richard (the resident kiss-ass) take the animal to be incinerated before Dr. Sorenson tells Richard to just leave it there so he can perform a necropsy on it in the morning.  A necropsy, for those who don't know (and apparently google doesn't know what a necropsy is because it's underlined in red while I type this), is basically an autopsy on an animal instead of a human being, usually to find the cause of death, or in this case, to find out why exactly the serum went wrong.  So Sam runs off to get the game started, Dr. Sorenson runs off to prepare for his Game Master duties, and Richard runs off to kiss more ass.  Sam's intentions are never really explained, or perhaps it was just an emotional judgement on his part, and because of all the cool drugs he had access to as a research assistant and lab geek, and all the excitement of playing THE GAME later on, he completely forgets about a practically rabid monkey that might be waking up in his vicinity later on that evening.  But eh!  if I had a dime for all the important stuff I'd forgotten in the heat of the moment, I could probably afford to be wearing pants right now.

Cue Shakma, waking up in a very bad mood, while the game is going on in the same building.  Bloodiness, confusion and mayhem ensue as everyone tries to figure out what is game and what is real, all locked inside the building with a very grumpy research animal.  But I leave the rest to your viewing pleasure, as this title is currently available on Netflix.

This isn't the greatest of movies, but there is a lot to like and dislike about it.  Not really any nudity, which, for an late 80's / early 90's monster movie, is inexcusable, especially one with Ari Meyers in it.  I checked her IMDB profile and she now looks NOTHING like she did in this film.  Sure, people get older, but I think she also had a nose job.  I used to have a huge crush on Ari, big nose and all, but she's barely recognizable at this point in her life, which is, oh, 23 years after she was in Shakma.  Ah well.  Time marches on, as they say.

The acting wasn't particularly impressive, except for the baboon, who was by turns, thoroughly endearing and thoroughly horrifying.  The baboon alone should have had an academy award for this, since in my opinion, it acted better than some oscar winners.  Ari Meyers was also thoroughly believable in her naive role as "the princess," dolling herself up to await the coming of Sam, who she hoped would eventually "rescue" her and win the game.  I thought Christopher Atkins overacted a bit, but then, speaking as a geek myself, I am never sure how to react when something unexpected happens, so who am I to judge what he does when he finally remembers Shakma?

There was suspense, foreboding, and the animal in question was a thoroughly believable monster, since it was totally real.  An enraged lab animal?  Hell yes!  No special effects needed, they used a LIVE BABOON.  Completely believable!  Shakma was fast, lethal and terrifying in the role of villain.  I'm not sure what they did to train Typhoon (the real name of the baboon, who is probably now dead as I don't think baboons live for many years) to wreck lab equipment and throw things around, or if that's what baboons normally do in their off-hours, but I would have certainly run the other way if I had encountered it.  The blood and gore effects were cheap, but I suppose they spent the money on renting the building, Roddy McDowell's pay, and the baboon trainer.

So, there you have it.  Obviously I have seen it before, but most of this movie was still enjoyable, even if the end was a bit goofy and I fast forwarded through the last few minutes.  I'll probably watch it again in another 20 years or so.  lol

And on the note of special effects, Ray Harryhausen has passed away at the tender young age of 92 earlier today.  Those in the know, recall him as being the special effects wizard who brought us the likes of Skeletons, Harpies and Demons in the old Sinbad movies, and in 1981's Clash of the Titans.  I knew OF Harryhausen's work long before I took an interest in movies enough to know who Harryhausen was.  I grew up on the Troglodyte from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the skeleton soldiers in Jason and the Argonauts, and the plethora of greek myths and monsters in Clash of the Titans (which of course was recently remade with computer generated effects, and wasn't even half as good as the original).  Harryhausen was a pioneer in the art of stop-motion animation, working on hollywood's best B-movies in the 60's and 70's.  Farewell Ray!  I hope they have monsters in the afterlife.  Uh.  That.. you can meet and have coffee with, or something equally peaceful, given your interest in bringing them to life on the big screen.  Look Mr. Harryhausen up on if you want to know more about him.

That's all for now!

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