Monkeys! They’re Hollywood’s favorite animal. Monkeys and their relatives (apes, gorillas, Clint Howard, etc.) have been featured in more movies than any other creature besides man, according to the Bureau of Statistics I Made Up That Sound Convincing. Often, the monkey is the most sympathetic character in the film. That is certainly the case with “Shakma,” a benign straight-to-video lump from 1990 about an angry baboon that kills medical students who were dumb enough to experiment on him and then lock themselves in a building with him.
As you might have guessed, Shakma is the baboon’s name. That’s a perfectly good name for a baboon (I guess; I don’t know what his parents’ names were), but it’s a bad title for a movie because it doesn’t tell us anything. Knowing nothing more than that it’s about a killer baboon, I could come up with five better titles for this movie. Watch, I’ll do it now:
“Shakma Goes Bananas”
“Death Flings Its Poop”
“The Red Buttocks of Fury”
The entire film takes place in a drab seven-story building that serves as some nameless university’s depressing medical school. There are classrooms and professors’ offices, along with a laboratory where experiments are conducted on animals for the purposes of science and hilarity. One of these animals is Shakma the baboon. On the day in question, Shakma’s brain has been injected with a chemical that “usually inhibits aggression, but sometimes it has the opposite effect,” according to one student, Richard (Greg Flowers). It’s not clear whether they’re trying to make Shakma more aggressive or less aggressive, or why they’d want to do either of those things, and before anyone can ask, Shakma wakes up from the anesthesia and scratches Richard’s arm. So we’re off to a good start!
The students’ instructor, a prim taskmaster named Professor Sorenson (Roddy McDowall), is displeased by Shakma’s aggression (again, I don’t know what they were hoping for) and says the animal will have to be put down. This gives medical student Sam (Christopher Atkins, from “Blue Lagoon”) a sad face, as he had developed a bond with Shakma and was already upset that they’d experimented on him. (It’s unclear what Sam’s expectations were for his friendship with the monkey he met in a science lab, but it’s safe to say that they were unrealistic.) There is a mix-up, however, and Shakma is injected with the wrong chemicals and instead of dying he just falls asleep for a while. This allows him to rest up for his killing spree, and to miss the more boring parts of the movie.
Meanwhile, it’s a big night for the medical students because they’re going to use the building for a live-action role-playing game! A sad, sad game about dragons and princesses with clues hidden in certain rooms, puzzles to solve, passwords, that sort of thing. They have been planning it for days, and they are very excited! This is the movie’s way of helping us not feel too sorry for them when they are torn apart by a vengeful monkey.
The four people playing the game are Sam, his girlfriend Tracy (Amanda Wyss), bespectacled computer nerd Bradley (Tre Laughlin), and nondescript fourth person Gary (Robb Morris). Richard was not invited to play. In fact, they’re annoyed when they learn Richard even knows about it. Richard’s kind of a screw-up, and the other medical students don’t like him. He wheedles and begs, though, and Sam agrees to let him be the one who goes around setting up the clues in the designated places. So who was going to do this before Richard came along? And why are only four people playing a game that uses an entire university building? I am thinking way too much about this.
How disliked is Richard by his classmates? They kept the game a secret from him, but they let his teenage sister participate. Her name is Kimberly (Ari Meyers), and she is the princess who gets rescued at the end. She just has to sit in a room in a princess costume and wait for the winner to arrive. It’s really just a ceremonial role. She hopes it will be Sam who “rescues” her because she has a major crush on him. It’s adorable, her poor taste in men. To emphasize that Kimberly is in love, every time the movie cuts to her sitting around waiting to be rescued, the music shifts from “mysterious and suspenseful” to “tender and generic, like the score from a Very Special Episode of an ’80s sitcom.” Is it funny every time? Yes.
Oh! For some reason Prof. Sorenson is also involved in the game, acting as game-master and communicating with each player via walkie-talkie to tell them whether their answers are correct so they can move to the next level. For a prim taskmaster, he takes this non-educational extra-curricular Friday-night activity very, very seriously. He would probably be very dull at parties, if he ever got invited to one.
Anyway. On with the mayhem! Bradley stumbles upon the lab where Shakma has been chillin’, only now he has woken up and is very irritated, and he attacks Bradley in the face and kills him. This causes Bradley’s homing device to quit working (VERY ELABORATE TECH FOR AN AFTER-HOURS ROLE-PLAYING GAME), so Prof. Sorenson sends Richard to check on him, and Richard is also attacked by the baboon. Bam! Two down, five to go!
Prof. Sorenson finds dead Richard, is shocked by all the blood, touches the blood, then touches his own chest and face, getting blood all over himself, like a moron. He doesn’t cry out, call for help, or sound an alarm. What he does is dawdle, giving Shakma plenty of time to catch his breath and come out and kill him too. Three down! We’re makin’ good time here, movie! Looks like we might get to clock out early!
Ah, but alas. Now we come to the portion of the film in which our heroes — Sam and Tracy, by default — discover what is going on, manage not to be killed by the same thing that’s been killing everyone else, and then run around forever wasting time and accomplishing nothing. This is known as the “Waiting for Godot” section. In the screenplay, it was represented by 30 blank pages, the last of which had a scribbled drawing of a hand flipping the reader off.
There’s lots of dashing from one room to another and holding the door closed so Shakma can’t get them. They can’t call for help because this seven-story university medical building only has a few phones, and they’re all in teachers’ offices, which are locked. They can’t leave the building altogether and run for help because the main doors were locked (from the outside?) as part of the game. That doesn’t make a lick of sense, and it doesn’t explain why they couldn’t escape through a ground-floor window, but it does allow Sam and Tracy to come up with brilliant alternate plans like using a strobe light to temporarily blind the baboon. Tracy shows Sam how to use it (he’s in medical school and doesn’t know how lights work), and when the time comes Sam flips the switch; it flashes briefly and goes out; and Sam immediately gives up and throws the light at the monkey. This ends the portion of the film where Sam and Tracy come up with brilliant alternate plans.
Gary the nondescript fourth person, hilariously oblivious to the carnage and still playing the game all by himself, gets killed when he reaches Tracy on the walkie-talkie and Tracy just says “Don’t go to the fifth floor!” instead of something more helpful like “DON’T GO TO THE FIFTH FLOOR BECAUSE A CRAZY MONKEY IS THERE!!” Gary figures she’s trying to keep him from getting ahead of her in the game, goes to the fifth floor, and that’s it for Gary the nondescript fourth person.
Kimberly is still dressed like a princess, sitting alone in a college classroom on a Friday night hoping she’ll get to hook up with the college guy who has a girlfriend already, barely knows Kimberly is alive, and hates her brother (who is now dead).
Then Tracy gets killed and you think: Wow, maybe Kimberly’s going to get her wish after all! But nope, she gets one scene with Sam where she thinks he’s really going to be her knight in shining armor, and then she’s immediately killed too. Her death, like all the other deaths, is in the form of Shakma attacking her face. (Shakma is a one-trick monkey where murdering humans is concerned.) They used a real baboon for most of the movie — a cute, charismatic one with vibrant butt cheeks — but the attack scenes involved a stunt stuffed animal.
Now only Sam is alive, a fact that is all the more disheartening when you realize there’s still 18 minutes left in the movie. That’s a long time to spend alone with him. He soon finds a room with a telephone and calls 911. But when the operator answers, Sam falls silent as Christopher Atkins, summoning all of his power as an actor, conveys that Sam is “thinking.” Sam realizes that instead of summoning help, what he must do is hang up the phone and destroy Shakma himself. It is the only honorable course of action. This is between him and the monkey.
It’s a little surprising that Sam defeats Shakma, given that 1) none of the other characters survived and 2) it is far from certain that he is any smarter than Shakma. But defeat him he does, using electricity (yes, he shocks the monkey), a knife, and an incinerator. Several people are dead, but Sam is alive — which, looking on the bright side, makes him the winner of the game. And the baboon that wasn’t hurting anyone before people messed with its brain won’t be around anymore to hurt anyone. So that’s nice. You were a good baboon, Shakma. Too beautiful for this world.