Director – George A. Romero
Cast – Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeil, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci, Boo
Release Year – 1988
Reviewed by John of the Dead
Monkey Shines is a film I remember seeing all the time when I was a kid, although it took me a long while to realize that this film came from the same guy that gave me one of my favorite childhood films, Night of the Living Dead. His first studio film of his iconic career, George A. Romero’s Monkey Shines does not “feel” like a Romero film, but it delivers enough horror in a well-shot package for us horror fans, with its only real flaw being its overly long runtime.
When law-student Allan Mann(Jason Beghe) suffers a terrible jogging accident, the former track star is forced to spend the rest of his days as a quadriplegic in a motorized wheel chair. When his good friend Geoffrey Fisher gives him a young monkey named Ella to serve as a full-time companion, Allan is elated and embarks on a new friendship with Ella. Little does Allan know, Ella is part of an ongoing experiment of Geoffrey’s in which he injected human brain tissue into Ella, causing Ella to exhibit abnormal and almost “human” behavior. Soon enough, Ella begins to take on the shape of a killer, carrying out Allan’s maniacal bidding, but soon turning the tables on Allan himself.
If you are expecting a truly horrific watch that delivers some nice spooks then Monkey Shines most likely will not suffice for you. The film is quite tame by the standards we often reference to Romero, and the story moves a bit slow and carries that “big studio” feel to it. What was once scary to me as a child has no longer carried its weight to me in this day and age, but for what it is…Monkey Shines is a good film, but just OK as a horror film.
Romero adapted his screenplay from Michael Stewart’s novel of the same name, and delivered a good overall story that I can say I have yet to see used in the genre. We have seen films involving trained animals in the horror genre, like Congo, but I have yet to see one where the animal lived in home with the protagonist and soon developed murderous intensions of its own. The idea of a quadriplegic serving as our protagonist was an interesting one, and it helped provide some good conflict and tension given Allan is basically immobile and must use his mouth to maneuver his motorized wheelchair, which does not move very fast. The usage of Ella was positive, and for a monkey we see a fair amount of character development with her as she at first comes off as a curious and loving animal, but soon her love for her master forces her to make decisions for the worst, which come as a result of the human brain tissue that has been injected in her. We get several other characters thrown into the mix, all of which add their own positives into the film as George Romero made sure to not include any worthless characters, and only give us characters that add to the story. I did mention earlier that the film moves a bit slow, but that is usually not a problem as long as you are given something for it, and we were. Romero’s positive writing made the slow pacing bearable to me, although I must knock this film for its overly long runtime. For a film with the low amount of good horror that Monkey Shines delivers there is no way that it can support a near two-hour runtime. Had we been given some better deaths or more deaths then the level of horror would have risen and then subsequently allowed for the film’s long runtime, but that was not the case and at times I felt that I was not watching a horror film but instead watching a drama, and that is what happens when you don’t have enough horror to support your runtime.
To compliment his positive storyline Romero delivers good direction as well, with positive sets, atmosphere, and his ability to deliver the most out of what little good horror his screenplay contained. He achieved good performances from all of his actors, especially that of Ella the monkey. I do not know a whole lot about training monkeys, in fact I know nothing about training monkeys, but the actions and “acting” that Ella delivered in this film were fantastic and quite intricate for a non-human. I found it pretty ironic that the monkey, named Boo in real life, was so great at delivering these very intricate scenes because it honestly made it seems like she had really been injected with human brain tissue in real life, which for all I know may in fact be the case, heh. We do not get much gore in this film, which honestly did come as a surprise to me given this is a Romero film that also comes with Tom Savini working the special FX. Thankfully, the kills and action that we did receive were positive, which is the norm when Romero and Savini are paired together.
Overall, Romero’s direction is good and his story provides a unique watch that I have yet to see in the genre, but sadly this mostly-positive effort does not deliver the amount of horror that I would like to see in such a long film, but the horror that we do get is enough to warrant this an OK watch as a horror film.