Baboons are terrifying. They’re loud and aggressive. They have razor-sharp sabers for teeth. They have piercing, human-like eyes. And they have really scary hineys. These alarming attributes make the species particularly good monsters — even if the movies they star in aren’t always a barrel full of monkeys.
Cy Endfield’s 1965 thriller SANDS OF THE KALAHARI may not qualify as a horror film, but it does feature three different types of monster. When their tiny chartered aircraft is brought down by storm of locusts (yes, locusts!), the six passengers must fight to survive in the harsh African desert.
Among the stranded are sexy socialite Susannah York, nicotine-deprived Stanley Baker (who also produced) and big game hunter Stuart Whitman. Rounding out the cast are a marvelous group of character actors — Harry Andrews as a German intellectual, Theodore Bikel as a Jewish doctor and Nigel Davenport as a horny pilot. All them must face dehydration and exhaustion, and still compete for screen time with a troop of nasty baboons.
The first monster is the desert itself: stretching for hundreds of miles, it is the cruelest of environments, showing no mercy for its unprepared visitors. The only respite from the blistering sun is a cluster of rock caverns, which the survivors must share with the colony of ill-tempered apes. The second variety of monsters are the baboons, screeching defiantly, watching from above and always threatening to attack. The third monster is Whitman, who devises a plan to eliminate the other members of the party and keep the food — and the hot woman — for himself.
Erwin Hillier’s Technicolor widescreen cinematography is gorgeous, and definitely conveys the brutal conditions of the territory. The integration of baboon footage with scenes of the human actors is mostly well done; there are a few obvious, forgivable shots that employ Janos Prohaska-type monkey suits, but they’re kept to a minimum.
Writer/director Endfield works hard to create a parallel between the group of humans and the tribe of monkeys, which Andrews’ character describes as a “warring species” in which the alpha male runs the show.
The longer the castaways remain in the savage surroundings, the more primitive they become: in the final act, Baker and York must battle Whitman, who makes a monkey out of himself… almost literally. The very last shot of the film should leave you sufficiently creeped out.
While SANDS OF THE KALAHARI featured dozens of scary simians, the 1990 film SHAKMA offers only one… but it is a doozy.
A group of young medical students, led by Christopher Atkins and Amanda Wyss, are locked inside their college building to play an utterly dopey “Dungeons & Dragons” type of role-playing game. It’s not really clear how this has anything to do with medical training, but their cranky professor oversees the game. No stranger to movies about apes, the great Roddy McDowall plays their leader, in a role that reeks of repaying a favor.
Things go sour quickly when one of the university test animals, a Cape baboon named Shakma, is accidentally given a dose of the wrong medication. Thinking the beast is dead, one of the students leaves him unattended in a lab room… big mistake.
Now brutally aggressive, Shakma begins attacking everyone in sight and eating their faces off. One by one, the hairy little bastard hunts down the students, all of whom appear to be too stupid to break a window or call the police. In fact, the monkey seems to be the smartest person in the building.
SHAKMA looks and sounds like a movie from the late ’80s, loaded with that blue-hued “day for night” lighting. It surely suffers from its low budget, and the shots and editing don’t indicate much imagination. Atkins, Wyss and McDowall try valiantly to elevate their roles, but the movie belongs to the monkey.
SHAKMA has one thing that really works in its favor: that baboon is really freaking scary. Squealing and barking with insane intensity, the beast repeatedly hurls itself at doors and rushes full speed at its victims. It’s easy to imagine how being killed by a ravenous monkey would be a terribly unpleasant way to die.
Directed by Hugh Parks, SHAKMA does keep things moving by ignoring logic and concentrating on the characters’ imminent danger. To be fair, it’s oddly less predictable than SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, and the title beast is more frightening — no one in the cast is safe from this badass baboon.
So if you find yourself hankering for a high-quality killer baboon adventure, hit the SANDS. If you prefer something on a cheesier level, lock yourself in with SHAKMA. Either way, it’ll be completely bananas.