Shakma / Panic in the Tower (1990) -***
You all know about the YouTube Hole, right? You go on YouTube in search of some specific clip, get seduced by something else that pops up in the “related videos” column, and the next thing you know, it’s five hours later, and you haven’t so much as begun a single damn one of the tasks you’d hoped to accomplish that day. I bring it up because falling down the YouTube Hole was how I learned about Shakma. The exact details are lost to my memory, but somehow an unjustifiably long night of watching old movie trailers led me and my girlfriend to the one for this film. It was… well, see for yourself. I can wait two and a half minutes.
Pretty enticing, eh? Music that could have been swiped from a turn-of-the-90’s arcade game; stars who are already has-beens at the age of 27; invocations of an industry award that you can’t quite believe actually exists; Roddy McDowall scraping together the money for a new BMW. And let’s not forget that voiceover! I’m sure it isn’t really a young Tony Todd growling and purring his way through all that desperate silliness, but I so badly want it to be. Juniper and I knew at once that we simply had to see Shakma one of these days, but inevitably it was out of print and unreleased on DVD. I finally lucked into a gray-market vendor that carried it, though, and when “Teeth and Tentacles” won the vote for the next B-Masters roundtable, the only question was, would my bootleg disc of Shakma arrive in time? As you can see, it did indeed— and let me tell you, it did not disappoint!
The question I imagine you’re all asking at this point is, “What the fucking hell is a ‘Shakma’ supposed to be?” Well, with that spelling, it’s nothing but this delightfully stupid movie, but a chacma is a kind of baboon. Specifically, it’s Papio ursinus, also called the cape baboon. Chacmas are the biggest of the baboons, and depending on how you score it, they might even be the biggest of the all the world’s monkeys. The squatter, more muscular mandrill is heavier on average, but a real bruiser of a male chacma can weigh in at almost 100 pounds, over 20% larger than the most massive mandrill. Chacmas are also among the more widely distributed baboons, with a range that covers virtually the whole southern fifth of Africa. Of course, all of that is sort of beside the point, since the killer baboon in Shakma is conspicuously not a chacma. Rather, he’s a hamadryas, as can be plainly seen by his huge, toroidal Bozo the Clown mane, which is a feature unique among baboons to the males of that species. The substitution was not a wise move on the filmmakers’ part, because the stubbly pate and frizzy, gray temples combine with the fact that the poor creature has had his fangs pulled to make Shakma look comically like a little old man with a bright red ass.
Anyway, the setting for Shakma is a medical research laboratory overseen by one Dr. Sorenson (McDowall, from Arnold and Class of 1984). We’ll have to take the trailer’s word for it that “It started as a study of human aggression,” because the movie itself never quite gets around to saying exactly what Sorenson is up to. What is clear is that his work involves performing open-brain surgery on animals, and dosing their cortices with weird chemicals designed either to suppress or to enhance their tendency toward aggressive behavior. Apparently at least one of those chemicals unpredictably does both, which suggests to me that it was perhaps not the best one to try on the lab’s biggest and most potentially dangerous experimental subject, a hamadryas baboon which Sorenson’s top assistant, Sam (Chris Atkins, of Dracula Rising and Beaks: The Movie), calls “Shakma.” It’s also clear that Sam has formed a strong attachment to the baboon, and doesn’t altogether approve of what’s being done to him in the opening scene. Yeah, those of you who are hearing a little girl protesting “Not that one! That one’s my favorite!” in the back of your heads right now are on to something.
Don’t go expecting Sorenson’s research or Sam’s affection for Shakma to matter in any direct way to most of the ensuing 90 minutes, though. The true perversity of this movie lies in the obviousness and rapidity with which its setup gets tossed aside after being established. Shakma wants only two things from Sorenson’s laboratory, in its capacity as a laboratory: (1) a mechanism for creating a monster and (2) an excuse for that monster not to be destroyed at once. As soon as Sorenson has soaked Shakma’s brain with liquid rage and Sam has disobeyed orders to euthanize him upon the doctor’s determination that the experiment has failed, writer Robert Engle and directors Tom Logan and Hugh Parks forget all about mad science per se. You’ll never believe what Shakma is really about, either. No, don’t even bother trying to guess; whatever you just thought of, I guarantee you it was wrong. Shakma, at bottom, is a cautionary tale about the dangers of LARPing on the job!
You see, there’s this game called Nemesis, a variation on the theme of Dungeons & Dragons with more puzzle-solving than monster-fighting, and the whole inner circle at Sorenson’s lab plays it, Sorenson himself included. One member of said inner circle is a computer witch doctor named Bradley (Tre Laughlin), and he and Sam have figured out a way to run a live-action version of Nemesis after hours at the lab, with Sorenson as the game master and his subordinates— Sam, Bradley, Tracy (Amanda Wyss, from A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Graves), and Gary (Rob Edward Morris)— as competitive players. Sorenson will hide objects of relevance to the game throughout the building, and use walkie-talkies and a computer program of Bradley’s design to track and communicate with the others. He’ll also direct the titular Nemesis, an imaginary, unstoppable monster that attempts to thwart the players in their goal. As for the goal, that would be Kim (Ari Meyers), the younger sister of another lab employee named Richard (Greg Flowers), who’ll be playing the part of a captive princess; presumably those clues Sorenson has stashed all over the place collectively point the four would-be heroes toward both her location in the tower and the correct protocol for effecting her rescue. I get the feeling that Kim wasn’t originally in the plan, though, since there’s nothing really for her to do except to wait around in her hidden cell for one of the others to collect her. She’s obviously got the hots for Sam, so I figure she finagled her way into the game as an excuse to hang out with him. I don’t even have that good a guess as to why Richard wants in, since he plainly regards the whole enterprise as something for nerds and losers. Nevertheless, Richard pesters Sam and Sorenson to include him, until finally they stick a rubber fright mask on his head and press him into service as Nemesis. Unsurprisingly, Richard proves to be willfully no good at the job.
So come 7:00, we’ve got a slightly dotty neurologist, five geeky grad students, and an infatuated 20-ish girl, all gadding about in a big laboratory building with all the doors leading to the outside world electronically locked. (Can’t have people just waltzing in off the street in the middle of the game, now can we?) We also have a heavily sedated baboon who’s been left out of his cage to await dissection in the morning because everybody but Sam thinks he’s dead. The chemicals in Shakma’s blood are going to wear off long before the chemicals in his brain, and when he wakes up, the LARPers will have a real Nemesis on their hands.
Shakma is not a good movie; there’s no getting around that. The acting by the human cast is mostly terrible, and with one exception, it gets worse in direct proportion to the amount of screen time the person doing it gets. (The exception is Ann Kymberlie, who plays Richard’s superbitch girlfriend. Hers is far and away the smallest part in the film, but her performance is just as far and away the worst.) The baboon playing Shakma certainly gives the role his all, but as I’ve already observed, he’s a little too cute and funny-looking ever to be really threatening. I suspect it would have been different had his owners let him keep his fangs (male baboons have canine teeth longer and sharper than a lion’s, and their yawn is one of the most persuasive threat displays in all of nature), although I can understand why actors or stuntmen might balk at working with a baboon that had not been thus disarmed. Building the main plot around a live-action role-playing session is as hilariously misguided as it is memorably individualistic, invoking as it does the specter of earlier D&D scare movies like Mazes and Monsters. (On the other hand, it’s clear that Robert Engle at least gave some serious thought to the mechanics of Nemesis, which in contrast to, say, the titular RPG in John Coyne’s Hobgoblin, looks like it might actually be playable in the real world.) And of course the chain of events leading to a killer baboon running loose in a locked-down building full of unsuspecting potential victims is deeply stupid in ways that the responsible parties barely even attempt to hide.
Nevertheless, there are a few genuinely compelling qualities to Shakma— certainly more that you’d expect from a cheapskate animal-attack flick shot at Universal Studios Orlando during the brief period when the company was trying to operate that outpost as a legitimate center of film production as well as a lucrative tourist trap. Shakma has an angry hardness about it that sometimes makes it feel like a movie from ten or fifteen years earlier, and although its characters are broadly-drawn buffoons who would have fit comfortably into the likes of Cutting Class or Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, the filmmakers show them a lack of mercy more in keeping with I Drink Your Blood or The Hills Have Eyes. That rough treatment has a way elevating Sam and his companions to a dignity they don’t properly deserve, since you can’t really be merciless to Expendable Meat. If a character exists only to be slaughtered, then their slaughter will be essentially meaningless; in dying, they’re just doing their job. Shakma is unusual in that it populates itself with characters of no more merit than Expendable Meat, yet insists upon handling their deaths as if they were actually significant. It’s easiest to see in Kim’s reaction to discovering that her brother has been butchered by the monkey, which comes across as a weird, bumbling attempt to achieve genuine pathos. There’s more there, in other words, than an invitation for the audience to enjoy the demise of a purposefully deserving nitwit, as one so often sees in contemporary slasher movies— even though everything about Richard would normally paint him as exactly that sort of character. The effect is pleasantly disorienting, and it imparts a level of interest to Shakma that I was not expecting to find.
This review is part of a more or less self-explanatory B-Masters roundtable. It’s called “Teeth and Tentacles,” and it’s all about things that have teeth and/or tentacles. Click the link below to read my colleagues’ contributions.