Monkey Shines: “One of Romero’s wilder rides”
One of the issues I have always had with the 70s and 80s horror is George A. Romero. Not his movies as I love more of them than I don’t, more the way the industry dealt with him. First and foremost he was a satirist who wanted to tell stories using the language of grizzlier styles of cinema, he wanted to be more than ‘the godfather of the dead’, unfortunately, the success of those movies made financiers less interested in backing his work that didn’t include the shambling undead. Despite that struggle, he still managed to make Creepshow, the Crazies, and Martin, movies that include some of his best work. Also in that mix is Monkey Shines, out now from Eureka.
Made in 1988 when he was operating under his own fully independent studio, Monkey Shines sees Romero adapt Michael Stewart’s novel of the same name. In which, Athlete Allan (Jason Beghe) is hit by a truck in a road accident, the damage from which causes him to become a quadriplegic. Luckily, there’s a local project which sees capuchin monkeys trained to be helping hands ran by Kate McNeil (Melanie) and she has a Capuchin, called Ella, donated by a friend of Allan’s, Geoffrey (John Pankow), who has been implanting human brain matter into simians to see what effect it has. This is a thriller whose core concept questions what happens when human’s play god with the animal kingdom, so naturally, things go awry spectacularly with Allan and Ella being somehow mentally connected and bad things happening as a consequence of their ‘link’.
The much-cited adage “don’t work with either children or animals” is pretty harsh on kids, but animals, how do you even direct an animal? So, looking at this concept on paper, like many ‘animal attacks’ movies before and after, it seems like a disaster waiting to happen. It has to be one of the reasons why this style of movie has all but died out. Let’s be fair though, not all productions can be as disastrous as Roar (seriously, google it), of all animals who that adage seems to overlook it would be the unassuming Capuchin. They’ve done well in Ace Ventura (even thinking that makes me squirm), Robin Crusoe in Space, and many others over the years, and, of course, Monkey Shines. The titular monkey here is called Ella and as the movie opens she will melt your heart. In the early scenes where Ella and Allan meet, the tiny monkey hugs her wheelchair-bound housemate and it is just adorable. I have no idea how Jason Beghe managed to retain his cool.
It would be ridiculous to suggest this tiny little monkey can act, but some very neat camera choices give that impression. Silly it might be – outside of some Stephen King performance flourishes in Creepshow, Romero has never been one to court silliness, but it works, for the most part, thanks to the very committed performance from Beghe, MacNeil, and Pankow. Each actor represents a different state of relationship with Ella and creates a different status quo for this fantastical circumstance to exist within. Beghe’s Allan becomes wracked with anger – perhaps a bit overkill at times – yet there’s a primal link between the two, with him being so helpless without the titular characters help he notices things the others don’t. The expressions Beghe wears on his face, the body language contained within that finite canvas create a situation of true horror even if the vehicle which this horror is traveling through is just darling. MacNeil eventually becomes romantically entangled with the quadriplegic lead, one of the more misguided decisions, I feel, yet her connection with the monkey comes from a place of biological respect, she wouldn’t have been able to run this helping hands programme otherwise. Respect is a major facet of the animal kingdom and she understands this. The only character who has the full picture is the scientist who deals with animal testing, Geoffrey (Pankow), as the film opens he talks about his irregular sleep patterns and his character acts more and more erratic as the film goes on and it is he who reveals the true extent of this animal connection and it is him who has gone too far in his scientific pursuits. All three compliment each other perfectly, the film wouldn’t be anywhere near as balanced without these three characters wrote in such a specific way.
Entertaining, compelling, tense and satirical, all these are catch words that defined George A. Romero throughout his storied career. One phrase I wouldn’t use to describe him is a bad finisher (it’s an odd phrase to use in the context of cinema, anyway). Whether you call Monkey Shines Horror or Thriller is beside the point, both build up to thrilling conclusions – at least you’d hope so. That is true here and there are moments where effects guru Tom Savini could only really have his players wrestle with an inanimate simian doll [the animated ones were great], but it’s low budget so it’s understandable. If Bruce Campbell can wrestle his own hand, John Pankow can do the same with a prop monkey. Building this scene up to a satisfying conclusion, Romero includes a post-finish scene which according to the movie’s legend is allegedly implying that perhaps Ella has taken full control. Sorry for this spoiler, the only reason I bring it up is as this scene depicts nothing of the sort, instead it deflates the ball of tension the film has been pumping up. It is perhaps even silly that last scene, almost as much as the scene in which Beghe is flung up in the air like a ragdoll after being hit by a van.
It’s lesser Romero, Monkey Shines, yet I don’t think such a claim damages the movie too badly as it works with the sort of grand ideas and satire that cemented Romero’s status as one of the King’s of Horror Cinema with your Craven’s, Carpenter’s and Cronenberg’s. Plus seeing his work released in such fine quality will always be an event for your horror faithful. Speaking of, in the extras there is a making-of optioned from the American Shout! Factory release. Romero himself features on this documentary and it was only in that moment that it truly sank in how much I miss one of the most interesting fixtures of 20th Century Cinema and his almost as iconic thick, black-rimmed glasses.