George A. Romero has provided fans with a very mixed bag of movies outside of his zombie ouvre. Earlier, edgy films such as The Crazies and Martin led towards the likes of Knightriders, Creepshow (a modern anthology classic) and The Dark Half. Those are the better choices, with a lot of fans unhappy watching Two Evil Eyes and Bruiser. Heck, the guy has even divided his fans over his continuing dabblings with the shambling ghouls that he made so popular. Monkey Shines is an interesting film that, despite showing some signs of age, holds up pretty well.
Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) is a fit young man. He goes out running with a bag full of bricks on his back. He’s a lot more active than I ever aim to be. Until he gets struck by an automobile within the first few moments of this movie and is paralysed from the neck down. Adjusting to this new way of life is, understandably, frustrating and difficult and Allan struggles with the new, extreme limitations of his broken body. His mother (Joyce Van Patten) doesn’t really help even though she tries, his nurse (Christine Forrest) isn’t the happiest soul in the world and his friend, Geoffrey (John Pankow), is often too busy with his lab full of monkeys that he’s experimenting on. And the least said about his girlfriend (played by Janine Turner) the better. To help him lead more of an independent life, Geoffrey arranges for Allan to receive help from a trained capuchin monkey named Ella. Ella has been trained by the patient and considerate Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil) but nobody really knows how smart she can get. Or how strong the bond can become between her and Allan.
The fact that Monkey Shines remains an interesting and intelligent horror despite including (or maybe because of) a dangerous monkey, a meddling scientist and more than one or two moments that defy the statistics piled up by modern medicine and science shows just how well put together the pieces are. It’s schlocky nonsense when you get to the core of it but it’s given a professional polish and dressed up nicely to distract viewers from that little fact.
Things are helped immensely by the cast. Jason Beghe is very good in the central role, conveying all of the frustrations and turbulent emotions that his character goes through. Everyone else onscreen does a great job, especially McNeil, Pankow and Joyce Van Patten, and there are even small roles for Stanley Tucci and Stephen Root.
Romero is responsible, as usual, for both the direction and the screenplay (based on the book by Michael Stewart) and he makes a number of canny choices regarding the treatment of the material. There is silliness in the concept, for sure, but the fact that it all revolves around something so painful and serious helps to stop things from feeling ridiculous or too far-fetched. Many scenes that shouldn’t really work actually do because Romero gets the tone just right for most of the movie (especially noticeable in a love scene that takes place during the second half).
Of course, to remain an entertaining genre piece means that things sometimes do have to stay a step removed from standard reality but this is hardly the biggest crime any movie within the horror genre can commit. A disappointing lack of onscreen bloodshed drags things down slightly further but, again, this is no major crime by itself and the movie is as much a psychological one as it is physical. A very enjoyable piece of monkey business.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: GEORE A. ROMERO
STARS: JASON BEGHE, JOHN PANKOW, KATE MCNEIL, JOYCE VAN PATTEN, CHRISTINE FORREST, JANINE TURNER, STANLEY TUCCI
RUNTIME: 113 MINS APPROX