A quadriplegic man has a trained monkey help him with his paralysis, until the little monkey begins to develop feelings, and rage, against its new master.
July 29, 1988 (U.S.)
George A. Romero and Michael Stewart
George A. Romero
Jason Beghe as Allan Mann
John Pankow as Geoffrey Fisher
Kate McNeil as Melanie Parker
Joyce Van Patten as Dorothy Mann
Christine Forrest as Maryanne Hodges
Based on the novel by Michael Stewart and filmed on location in Romero’s beloved Pittsburgh, Monkey Shines is a decent little thriller for a cold night in on the couch. Quick warning though: the film features caged animal experimentation (though we’re not talking documentary here, of course no animals were harmed during the production).
Allan (Jason Beghe) is an athlete. We open with his morning routine: get up, do some in-the-buff stretching, and then go jogging with a backpack full of house bricks. O… kay. Well, the bricks slow him down somewhat because he’s wiped out by a truck, and wakes up to be told by a surgeon (Stanley Tucci, who is slimy even when NOT playing slimy characters) that he is now a quadriplegic. Now, for me, being told that would be horrible enough, but George doesn’t stop there.
We watch as Allan’s life goes from messed up to REALLY messed up. First, his domineering mother (Joyce van Patten) begins to smother him, bringing into his life an annoying nurse (Christine Forrest) with an equally annoying pet bird. Then, his girlfriend Linda (Janine Turner) leaves him (presumably she doesn’t think he can quite “do it” for her in the sack now), so Allan decides to opt out by trying to breathe through a plastic bag. Thankfully, he doesn’t succeed, and his good buddy, drug addled scientist Geoffrey Fisher (John Pankow) decides to liven up his life by getting him a helper monkey named Ella (played by an extremely bright little Capuchin monkey named Boo). Ella has been trained by Melanie (Kate McNeil), who specializes in providing helper pets to disabled people, so she also sticks around to help Ella and Allan settle in together. However, Geoffrey (unbeknownst to Allan or Melanie) has been injecting Ella with human brain cells in his lab in a misguided attempt to make her smarter. He’s also been injecting himself with speed to stay up all night doing monkey research. This is a well-balanced individual we’re dealing with here.
At first, all is well. Ella proves more than capable of helping Allan out around the house, you know, fetching stuff, acting as his “hands”, to answer the door, phone, etc. He even begins to bond with the crazy little monkey, and who could blame him? She’s pretty damn cute, in that fuzzy simian kind of way. Then he begins to have feelings for Melanie and she for him (I guess she’s a good old gal who can look past the physical… good on her). Things are starting to look up for Allan. Until he begins to have dreams… strange dreams about leaping out of his attic window and scurrying about in the night. It seems all is NOT well. It’s got something to do with those human brain cells… Ella has also bonded with Allan psychically. She becomes his physical presence, acting out with animal instinct and aggression all those frustrations Allan has been forced to repress, like his anger over his ex getting it on with his surgeon. Thankfully though, when it comes time for Allan and Melanie to consummate the relationship, Ella is nowhere to be found. (There’s a bad “doing it like monkeys” joke there…but I’m gonna steer clear.) Actually, putting my serious face on for a second, I was pleasantly surprised to see a love scene like this, kudos to George (I haven’t read the source novel) for including it, it’s handled with dignity and good taste. Unfortunately, this blossoming relationship sparks a jealous rage in little Ella, who decides to take matters into her own tiny monkey paws and wreak some good old fashioned mayhem.
Though not well received critically or financially upon its release, Monkey Shines is one of those low budget, innovative psychological horrors that I can always get into (it helps that I’m a big fan of monkeys) and is very underrated, mainly due to the extremely unfair criticism that Romero “hasn’t done anything good since those zombie movies”. It takes time to develop the characters, especially the ones that get what’s coming to them, so you can fully appreciate it when they, well, get what’s coming to them. The acting is not too bad for an 80’s horror flick, the standout is John Pankow, and he definitely loses himself in the role. Jason Beghe is just passable as our crippled protagonist, but I gotta cut him some slack as for 90% of the film he can only move his face. The score by David Shire, while not outstanding, serves the film well, especially during the tense moments.
Speaking of tense moments, Romero’s skill at building tension, so evident in his seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968) is again on fine display here. Even a jaded horror filmgoer like me found myself gripping the armrest quite a few times, and even squirming with discomfort a couple times as well. Romero’s visual style is good, I’m normally irked at “monster’s POV” shots, but in this film they just worked. And I really dig the use of the cute little monkey, it playfully toys with your emotions as all good horrors should: even when Ella is menacingly brandishing a scalpel or a syringe and baring her little fangs in a snarl, you just can’t help but go “awww, isn’t she cute?”