Monkey Shines

By Ezra Stead

Monkey Shines, USA, 1988

Written and Directed by George A. Romero

Based on the Novel Monkey Shines by Michael Stewart

Monkey Shines is quality entertainment from director George A. Romero. Much like famous rappers, great horror directors often do their best (or at least most well-received) work right out of the gate, only to spend decades laboring over increasingly diminished returns. Often this critical and/or commercial appraisal is unfair, but it is arguably true that, for example, Nas never again put out an album as good as his debut, Illmatic, or that John Carpenter has never equaled or exceeded his early work of the 1970s and ’80s, though his late-period Masters of Horror film, Cigarette Burns (2005), showed the kind of genius not seen in his films for about a decade up to that point. Tobe Hooper is another filmmaker who never quite lived up to the promise of his brilliant breakthrough feature, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), despite doing some pretty quality follow-up work such as Salem’s Lot (1979) and Poltergeist (1982), though of course producer Steven Spielberg is commonly recognized as the real creative force behind the latter.

George A. Romero is generally considered to be one of these unlucky filmmakers as well, and while it is true that he never topped his chilling debut feature, Night of the Living Dead (1968), there is a worthwhile body of work to examine in later decades, and his 1988 film Monkey Shines is among his best work, along with films like Martin (1976), Creepshow (1982) and, of course, the original Dead trilogy (I haven’t seen his latest, 2009’s Survival of the Dead, but based on the previous two – 2005’s Land of the Dead and 2007’s Diary of the Dead – I feel relatively comfortable relegating the new Dead trilogy to the same scorn-pile as the new Star Wars trilogy).

Monkey Shines is the story of Allan Mann (Jason Beghe), an athlete who is struck down by a semi-truck at the start of the film, rendering him quadriplegic. He is forced to use one of those wheelchairs operated by blowing into a straw in order to get around, and after he hits his lowest point and attempts suicide in his desperation, his friends and family realize they must take drastic measures to help him. His best friend, Geoffrey Fisher (John Pankow), is a speed-freak research scientist doing experimental work to increase intelligence in monkeys by injecting them with a solution of human brain matter (pretty preposterous, but who goes to see a movie about a killer monkey for accurate science?). With the assistance of helper-monkey trainer Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil), little Ella the monkey (Boo is the monkey’s real name, though she lacks any other screen credits) becomes the ultimate helper-monkey for Allan, performing all the tasks he cannot with startling aplomb.

Monkey Shines is a classical Misunderstood Monster movie. Everything seems to be going quite well at first, with Ella showing amazing intelligence in her duties to the point where it seems as though she can read Allan’s mind and act on his subconscious desires. This is when things start to get unsettling, though, when Allan discovers that his former girlfriend, Linda (Janine Turner), is now shacking up with his pompous surgeon, Dr. John Wiseman (a young Stanley Tucci at his sleaziest), who may have actually intentionally left Allan paralyzed in order to get him out of the picture. Since Allan knows this, it isn’t long before Ella does, too, and being a primate with newfound human awareness, she is able to act on this knowledge in ways that the civilized, consequence-aware Allan dares not. Allan begins to have troubling nightmares in which he sees little Ella’s point-of-view as she rampages through the night, doing what is essentially his dirty work for him, and though the source of this telepathic connection is unclear and far-fetched at best, it provides for some exhilarating cinematic moments.

In many ways, Monkey Shines is a classical Misunderstood Monster movie, in the tradition of the great Universal thrillers of the 1930s, such as James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), or its more obvious predecessor, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack’s King Kong (1933). In fact, Monkey Shines is very much a re-imagining of the Kong story with the gender roles reversed and without the supernatural size element, as Ella only causes mayhem out of her love for Allan, and only directs her violence toward those she sees as a threat to either his happiness and well-being or her own safety. It is unlikely that any viewer who isn’t automatically terrified of monkeys will be frightened by Ella, especially since the little Capuchin monkey is so damn cute, but a great deal of empathy and suspense is created by Allan’s immobile condition, and the tension generated in this way is very effective. There is also a grim sense of humor to the film that is wisely employed at the right moments so as to increase, rather than undercut, the suspense of other sequences (the final shock moment of the film is effective as a “gotcha” moment, but also extremely funny and way too good to spoil here). At almost two hours, it is a bit too long and would undoubtedly have benefited from a bit more trimming of subplots, but Monkey Shines is nonetheless good, unpretentious fun for the Halloween season.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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