Monday, September 2, 2019

"He's Playing a Different Game Than the Rest of Us. Over." - Shakma (1990) - Film #150

Who is the king of the animals-attack films? Of course, the only answer is Mr. Christopher Atkins, star of Beaks (1986) and the classic we are discussing today, Shakma (1990). Director Hugh Parks's film combines the timely elements of live action role playing games, animal vivisection, and Roddy McDowall to create a claustrophobic suspense film that makes audiences redefine their relationship with baboons.

Oddly, not all of your universe's critics are in love with Shakma. For example, reviewer dancor writes poetically, under the headline "An all time low in film making, even for a B movie," "Camera work is like a Kentucky chicken farm home-movie about Fido, the family basset hound, who celebrated his 5th birthday, and got a bite from the prise winning rooster, filmed with a VHS-C camera." Reviewer SpiderPants calls the movie an "idiotic monstrosity of a film." And reviewer Varboro writes with impeccable logic, "Maybe it was necessary to make a movie about a killer baboon...but there is no need to watch it."

Read on for an unbiased look at the terrors of medical research on baboons...

The film begins in an anonymous building on a university campus (a building labeled “Marble Arcade” above its doorway, and sporting a sign that says “Addison Polytechnic”). Inside, an operation is being performed by Dr. Roddy McDowall in front of medical students, some of whom take notes while others lean casually on the railing separating the operating room from the outside world.

Dr. McDowall injects a yellow fluid into a heart. He looks at the syringe for a moment to determine it is empty, then ends the operation.

Meanwhile, medical student Christopher Atkins and his friends are setting up a live action role playing game with the aid of a sophisticated computer program that controls rooms and doors as well as tracks all the players so the game master (revealed to be Dr. McDowall) can monitor everyone.

Back in the operating room, one of the medical students tells Dr. McDowall, “I was just wondering about the game tonight, sir. It sounds like a marvelous opportunity to hone one’s mental skills.”

“That it is,” Dr. McDowall replies.

The research subject that got the injection was a baboon named Shakma. His body is wheeled into Mr. Atkins’s lab while he is joshing about “militant feminism” with his girlfriend, Amanda Wyss (she has the temerity to suggest opening an engineering firm after she graduates). The drug injected into Shakma’s brain, corticotropin, can either inhibit aggression or enhance aggression. One of the medical students, Richard, explains why they are experimenting on baboons. “They’re the most aggressive primate. Besides man.”

Shakma suddenly comes alive, which triggers a loud baboon alarm somehow. He makes a mess of the lab until Mr. Atkins subdues him with a hypodermic needle on the end of a broomstick, but not before Shakma has scratched Richard’s arm.

Bow-tied Rodday McDowall (who must have been wearing a suit with a rose in the lapel under his medical scrubs earlier) enters: “What the hell happened here?”

“I didn’t do anything,” says Richard. “He woke up and went berserk!”

Dr. McDowall insists that Mr. Atkins inject Shakma with more sedative, which will kill him. Mr. Atkins is depressed, having trained Shakma. After the doctor leaves, Mr. Atkins injects Shakma with the wrong drug by accident.

Not letting a baboon attack ruin their good time, the medical students plan their role playing game, recruiting Richard to play a demon named Nemesis. Richard’s little sister—played by Ari Meyers of Kate and Allie, co-star with Frederick Koehler of The Evil Within (2017)— arrives at the building. She is playing the princess in the game, an exalted honor. Mr. Atkins tells her, “It’s a big honor. The princess is the object of our quest.” Her role is to wait on the top floor for the role players to find her.

Mr. Atkins also gives a pile of papers to Richard. “I brought you the computer programs for the night.” In addition to playing Nemesis, Richard is responsible for setting up the building according to the computer program.

The game begins. Dr. McDowall communicates with the players by walkie talkie.

As Richard sets up the building, he switches off the power to the primate lab. This sequence also features a thrilling montage of Roddy McDowall using his keys to lock various doors (sometimes wearing his suit jacket and sometimes in his shirtsleeves!). When everything is locked up, he tells the players, “The building’s locked up tight. Nobody gets out until we have a rescued princess and a defeated demon.”

The game proceeds for a long time. It consists primarily of the players contacting Dr. McDowall via walkie talkie and asking for keys to doors internal to the building, which Dr. McDowall controls with his computer. Richard, meanwhile, tries to sabotage the game passively-aggressively so it will end early and he can spend time with his girlfriend.

One of the players, Bradley, who speaks solely in whispers for unknown reasons, says he will check the specimen room. Unfortunately for Bradley, Shakma has awakened and is throwing cages around. He leaps at Bradley.

Back in Dr. McDowall’s office, the computer shows Bradley’s avatar disappear, as the game trackers the students are wearing must be extremely sophisticated medical devices that detect life signs.

Richard looks for Bradley, jumping into the computer lab wearing a werewolf mask for some reason. (The computers, state of the art for 1990, make melodic beeping sounds similar to those audible on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.)

Shakma, who was charmingly playing with a teddy bear, stalks Richard, trapping him in a closet. The ever resourceful Richard pours a glass full of hydrochloric acid to use as a weapon, but he is attacked by Shakma before he can use it.

Mr. Atkins and Ms. Wyss meet each other in one of the rooms. Ms. Wyss talks to Dr. McDowall via walkie talkie and he tells her that he can’t find Richard or Bradley. “Is everything okay? Over,” she says.

Incongruously, Dr. McDowall replies, “Nothing. Except I do think he’s playing a different game than the rest of us. Over.”

Dr. McDowall leaves his office, outside of which hangs a somewhat incongruous poster of an otter.

He sees bloody baboon footprints in the hallway, so he investigates the primate lab, only to find Richard’s body, grotesquely deformed by acid, which has also turned his hair quite gray.

For unknown reasons, Dr. McDowall presses his fingers into Richard’s bloody chest and then wipes his fingers on his shirt. Returning to the elevator, he sees Shakma at the end of the hall. Shakma runs toward him, and before the elevator doors close, Shakma jumps onto Dr. McDowall, both killing him and jamming the elevator door (the ten-story building, of course, has only one elevator) with his bloody body.

Mr. Atkins and Ms. Wyss discover that Shakma is causing mayhem. The baboon chases them down the hall until they hide in the stairwell. “There’s blood everywhere!” Mr. Atkin screams. After trying unsuccessfully to get to a phone, Mr. Atkins adds, “We’ve got to keep Shakma busy.” (An alternative might be to leave Shakma trapped on the fifth floor and simply leave the building.)

They go to the electricity lab, the only room that is not locked, and Ms. Wyss finds a strobe light to blind the baboon. This is mildly successful, and they are able to trap Shakma in the primate lab...until he breaks out and they lock themselves in the stairway again.

In a protracted and suspenseful sequence, Ms. Wyss attempts to distract Shakma by walking through the hallways on the fifth floor for a long, long time. Eventually, she screams so Shakma will chase her, and he does so. She locks her self in a closet, but she is terrified when she turns around and sees a plastic skeleton on a hook.

Mr. Atkins, meanwhile, attempts to rescue the clearly dead and now half eaten Richard in the primate lab. In a confusing sequence, Mr. Atkins confronts Shakma, who appears to run away from him, though it is difficult to tell because the two are never in the same frame. Seconds later, Ms. Wyss has somehow locked herself into a decorative cabinet in a hallway. Mr. Atkins talks to Shakma, telling him to leave her alone, and Shakma attacks him, though he escapes by yet again taking refuge behind a convenient door. In the end, everyone returns to the stairwell.

They go downstairs and try another door (though, curiously, there is a door next to it in the stairwell that they fail to try opening). Ms. Wyss asks, “Is this part of the game?”

“Look,” he says. “This is not my fault!”

“We should have never been in here!” she screams.

When he leaves to go upstairs to find a phone, she tells him, “Be careful.”

“It’s all right,” he says. “He can’t get off the fifth floor.”

“Be careful anyway.”

The last med student who doesn’t know he is in danger, Gary, contacts Ms. Wyss via walkie talkie, but she doesn’t tell him directly he is in mortal danger. Gary gets in the elevator and it stops on the fifth floor because Shakma has pushed the button. When the doors open, we hear the attack through Ms. Wyss’s walkie talkie, and then we see it when the doors open on the sixth floor, where Ms. Wyss stands. This allows the filmmakers to frame an impressive shot of Shakma’s jaw, blood dripping as he faces Ms. Wyss.

Of course, Ms. Wyss finds another generic room whose door she can easily hide behind.

Shockingly, Shakma breaks in and appears to kill her while she is trying to get to an air duct.

Meanwhile, Mr. Atkins finds Ari Meyers, who has been sitting obliviously on the top floor of the building. He tells her what is happening, though he doesn’t tell her that her brother Richard is dead. Highly resourceful, Ms. Meyers opens a drawer that holds dozens of pink forks and one steak knife. Cleverly, she pulls out the steak knife.

Even more cleverly, Ms. Meyers notices by looking through a window that Richard’s girlfriend is sitting in her car on the street below, though she is listening to music so she can’t hear their screams for help. She tries to pelt the car with pink forks, but is surprisingly unsuccessful.

Mr. Atkins finds Ms. Wyss’s dead body. Understandably, he breaks down and cries. Also understandably, he steals her gold necklace.

Meanwhile, Ms. Meyers finds a sack of glass beads hidden under the sofa cushions, meant to be magical “amulets” for the game. Of course, she throws them at the car down below. Richard’s girlfriend just drives away.

In the end, Mr. Atkins is the only human left alive, as Ms. Meyers discovers her brother’s body and is attacked by Shakma. He fills up another needle and attaches it to a broomstick. He also finds Dr. McDowall’s keyring and lets himself into the professor’s office, dialing 911 but saying nothing, preferring at the last minute to take on Shakma by himself. He wraps his wrists and walks the halls with a hypodermic in one hand and a knife in the other.

In the finest tradition of MacGyver, the A-Team and every second movie directed by Wes Craven, Mr. Atkins sets a death trap for Shakma. He pours water on the floor and drops stripped wires (possibly prefiguring the YouTube craze for instructional videos educating one on how to create death traps for drug-addled baboons that I assume must exist). Then he plays the waiting game.

Shakma shows up in a matter of minutes. Mr. Atkins completes the circuit, shocking the...baboon (not a euphemism). Shakma is not killed, however, which requires Mr. Atkins to continue walking through corridors with his broomstick.

Finally, Shakma does brutally attack Mr. Atkins, who fights back equally brutally with his steak knife.

In one of the film’s several artful shots, Mr. Atkins stands, bloody and beaten, in front of a mirror (whose presence is unexplained).

Losing blood, he stumbles back into the corridor to face Shakma for the last time. In a clever ploy, he uses the mirror to lure Shakma into leaping into the air. The baboon crashes into the mirror—and apparently flies through the mirror into the furnace used to cremate specimens.

And then Mr. Atkins bleeds to death.

The End

For a film whose final two-thirds consists primarily of people hiding behind doors in a Florida office building, Shakma is a suspenseful and tragic story. With fine performances from Christopher Atkins of Beaks (1986), Amanda Wyss of This House Possessed (1981) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Roddy McDowall of Laserblast (1978), the film might be considered the high point of its actors' careers. But of course it is Shakma the baboon who steals the show. Shakma is able to look both frightening and bored at the same time, a marvelous quality for an animal actor to possess. It is tragic that the story requires Shakma to die in the end, but it is almost equally satisfying that all the human characters have died as well [Spoiler].

With Shakma, we have reached the middle of the legendary trifecta of classic films starring the kids from Kate & Allie. Frederick Koehler's The Evil Within (2017) and Ari Meyers's Shakma (1990) are clearly movies for the ages, but what about Allison Smith's Terror Tract (2000)? Does it stand the test of time?

I don't know. I haven't seen it...yet. But it features John Ritter and David DeLuise, so it clearly aims for the stratosphere. Stay tuned.