Saturday, May 23, 2015

Shakma (1990)

... aka: Nemesis
... aka: Panic in the Tower

Directed by:
Tom Logan
Hugh Parks

Baboons are known for many things: Their high-pitched shrieks, their big, bald red asses, having powerful jaws and sharp teeth that they often like to flash to scare away threats and potential predators, being one of the largest and most aggressive members of the primate order and, last but certainly not least, the sheer glee they exhibit on the off chance they're put in a situation that allows them to slaughter bland collegians indulging in painfully geeky pastimes like Dungeon & Dragons. Considering how wild and frenzied baboons can be when they're all wired up, it's surprising how very few horror films have utilized this animal over the years. There's of course the safari park scene in The Omen (1976) where baboons attack Lee Remick's car, but that was just one isolated scene in the film. The nowadays seldom-watched IN THE SHADOW OF KILIMANJARO (1986), which was supposedly based on a true story about 90,000 starving baboons going on a murderous rampage in Kenya in 1984, may have been the first horror film to center entirely around the baboon, but the film was a major flop. And then came Shakma, which was a low-budget limited release that did most of its business on TV and video throughout the 90s.

There isn't much need to delve into the plot too thoroughly (a good thing because there's isn't much plot), but it's basically yet another horror tale about science gone awry. When he's not busy lecturing and playing childish games, Professor Sorenson (Roddy McDowall) is tinkering around with animal brains in an attempt to reduce aggression. His latest victim, er, subject, is a baboon named Shakma. After waking up from a surgery that was supposed to calm the savage beast, Shakma is even more vicious than ever before. Sorenson instructs a few of his students to put the animal down. They shoot it up, stick it in a room and then decide to put off cremating it for another day so that Sorenson can perform a necropsy... and then it's game time!

A handful of young medical students; Sam (Christopher Atkins), his girlfriend Tracy (Amanda Wyss), Bradley (Tre Laughlin), Richard (Greg Flowers) and Gary (Robb Morris), along with Richard's teen sister Kim (Ari Meyers), then decide to use the upper floors of a six story research facility to play some silly fantasy role-playing game utilizing a computer, walkie talkies and magic crystals (i.e. rocks), with Sorenson acting as "the game master" and a 1500 dollar bounty for whoever wins. Every door in the facility is locked, the alarm system is shut off and only a small handful of keys are distributed among the players, which must be earned by finding hidden scrolls. In other words, once they're locked in, it's not gonna be easy to get out. Shakma, of course, turns out to be not so dead, destroys nearly every animal in the lab and then begins murdering and partially eating the players one by one.

This one has its fair share of flaws. The dialogue is kind of lame, numerous characters do the most moronic things imaginable just to ensure they'll die, a large amount of time is spent showing people wandering down hallways and walking up and down the stairwell and it's extremely annoying that no one just busts out a window and starts screaming their head off until the police arrive (or even just barricade themselves in a room until help gets there). No sir! These people just needlessly and brainlessly make themselves vulnerable to attack throughout, which nearly had me screaming at my TV at times. And yet, despite all that, I still kind of enjoyed the film. It's rather simple, but in a good way, and the directors are at least able to balance out the violence (several of the baboon attack sequences are excellent) with genuinely suspenseful moments. The finale is also both clever and surprisingly grim.

Most of the actors are at least tolerable but the real star here is the aptly-named Typhoon the baboon, who is currently being robbed of having his very own page on IMDb. I may have to remedy that oversight one day. Typhoon was such a ladies man that no menstruating women were allowed on set or else he'd go crazy and, to get him to go buck wild and start attacking the doors, a female baboon in heat had to be placed on the other side. It was noticed later on that the "star" had a highly- visible erection during these 'rage' scenes, which had to be airbrushed out by the studio before the film could be released!


Killer's Moon (1978)

... aka: Killers Moon

Directed by:
Alan Birkinshaw

A bus with eight young female choir singers and a pair of uptight, matronly chaperons on board breaks down on a country road, prompting the ladies to walk until they can find shelter. They eventually stumble upon a huge, unoccupied hotel and settle down for the night, but a quartet of recently-escaped psychos decked out like Droogs for God knows what reason are on the loose and show up there to terrorize them. Also thrown into the mix are a hotel keeper and her slutty daughter, a gamekeeper and his wife, two male campers and, uh, a three-legged dog. There's one potentially novel angle present in this cheap "thriller:" the killers were all subjected to an experimental drug back at the nut-house prior to escaping. The drug puts them in an alternate state of conscience where they believe everything that's going on is only a dream so they can indulge in their darkest fantasies guilt-free. Why this angle was introduced in the first place is anyone's guess as it's poorly handled and proves to be utterly pointless. The escapees are already deranged so it's not outside the realm of plausibility they'd indulge in these activities regardless, so why even bother with the drug scapegoat? It would have been far more interesting had this detailed the effect of the drug on normal people.

I really wanted to like this one and expected to get at least something out of it considering many of the reviews I'd read were somewhat positive. The initial set-up is serviceable (albeit overused), but the incompetent direction, terrible screenplay and a deadly slow pace quickly turn it into a repetitive bore. It falls into that uneasy gray area of B entertainment where it's too poorly-made to take seriously, too silly to ever be disturbing and far too tame to be a trashy guilty pleasure. There are some mildly bloody moments, like an axe to the head and a knife through the throat, but the killings nearly all take place off screen and we just get to see the body afterward. The goriest moment is actually a throwaway WTF bit where one of the nuts chops off a cat's tail with a cleaver (!) A few of the actresses go topless and there are a couple of rape scenes, but these moments are too brief, too tame and too poorly done to please sleaze hounds. You can see the same exact material handled far more compellingly and convincingly in dozens of other films of this type.

Another problem I had was that there are so many pointless characters wandering around that not even the director can keep track of all of them. People go off to do things and disappear for such long stretches of time you complete forget about them by the time it returns to them. Others are at one location one minute and somewhere completely different the next. None of the choir girls are given even the slightest glimpse of personality or individuality and the director refuses to ever settle on a protagonist to give us a focal point to ground the action. I can't really comment on the acting because even Meryl Streep would have a hard time selling some of these lines. During the film's most jaw- dropping moment, one of the girls nonchalantly tells her recently- violated friend, "You were only raped. As long as you don't tell anyone about it you'll be alright. Pretend it never happened."

The final nail in the coffin is the laughably lazy visual presentation, which is so bad they can't even pull off something as simple as night convincingly! The exteriors set during the night were shot in the day with dark filters, but the sky always looks sunny and bright. The indoor footage is perhaps even worse because they don't even bother with giving it a darker look or even closing the curtains so there's always bright light flooding in through doors and windows during the "night." For numerous scenes supposedly taking place inside a tent, they hang up a huge tarp behind a few of the actors that not only is five times bigger than it should be but not even the same color as the tent show in long shots! These scenes have clearly been filmed somewhere on a stage with ridiculously unconvincing matte backdrops, which had me wondering why they didn't just set up a few spotlights and use the nice Lake District locations already at their disposal.

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