Synopsis: From writer/director George A. Romero, the man who unleashed Night of the Living Dead, comes a “terrific psychological thriller” (L.A. Weekly) that delivers a disturbing message about messing with Mother Nature. Starring Jason Beghe (“Melrose Place”) and Janine Turner (“Northern Exposure”), this riveting tale is “a white-knuckle triumph [that doesn’t] let up” (Newsweek)!
Allan Mann (Beghe) is a bitter, angry and vengeful man ever since an accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. He’s fed up with himself and everyone around him. All that changes when he’s given Ella, a monkey trained to meet his every need. But when Ella begins anticipating Allan’s thoughts, strange and deadly things start happening. And as she stalks and wreaks havoc on Allan’s fair-weather girlfriend (Turner), incompetent doctor and meddling mother, Allan realizes he must stop the cunning maniacal creature…before she fully takes over his mind!
Monkey Shines 7.5
eyelights: its core conceit. its performances. Ella.
eyesores: its small plot holes. its limited scares. its chintzy music cues.
“I always wanted to be Robbie the Robot. I guess I finally got my wish.”
I first heard of ‘Monkey Shines’ way back in 1988 when a local radio station was giving out tickets to a preview screening of the picture. I was too young to really appreciate horror films, anyway, but I also didn’t get the connection that the announcer was making with its director, George Romero; it would be 10-12 years before I even saw ‘Night of the Living Dead‘.
So I didn’t call in.
I still remember making a connection with Stephen King, however; for a couple of years, I’d been an avid King reader, devouring any of his books that I could get my hands on. And I’d been tickled by “The Monkey”, a short story that he’d republished in ‘Skeleton Crew’, a short story collection. I even had a copy of the audio book and it got a fair bit of wear.
So when I finally got my hands on ‘Monkey Shines’, something like 15 years later, I had very confused expectations: on the one hand, I was half-expecting ‘The Monkey’ and, on the other, I was expecting a horror film of the likes that only Romero could deliver. This led to severe disappointment when I discovered that ‘Monkey Shines’ was neither of those things.
The picture, which is based on Michael Stewart’s novel, tells of a symbiotic relationship that grows between Allan, a newly quadriplegic young man, and Ella, the service monkey that Geoffrey, his best friend, gets trained to help him. What Allan doesn’t know, however, is that Geoff, a researcher, had been conducting tests on Ella; she’s far smarter than average.
And more dangerous.
Interestingly, this time I rather enjoyed the picture; I’d steered clear ever since I first saw it and had adjusted my expectations. Though imperfect, I was surprised by how good the storytelling could be; Romero developed his characters nicely and explored their dynamics far better than you’d expect from a low budget horror film. You understand them fairly well.
But, mark my words: this is not a horror film.
‘Monkey Shines’, if anything, is more of a low boil science fiction thriller; it begins as a drama, throwing in a few light touches along the way, and then gradually builds up the tension. But most of it revolves around Geoffrey’s experiments on Ella, how they’ve made her more human, created a telepathic bond between her and Allan, and rendered her psychopathic.
As a quad, Allan is in a very vulnerable position around Ella. But she adores him, and would do anything for him. That’s part of the problem: anytime that someone ruffles his feathers, she acts out. The problem is that, due to their bond, her psychopathy bleeds into his own moods: he begins to have anger issues; it doesn’t take much for him to get upset at people.
And Ella corrects them.
Ella is played by Boo, a female monkey, and she’s totally adorable. Romero managed to make her a fully-fleshed character, even though she can’t utter a word. There’s this cute scene in which she turns all the lights off despite Allan’s protests, puts on some romantic music and then comes in for a long, tight hug. It’s impossible not to get attached to her.
But she’s also very scary: when she’s angry, she’s a wild animal, fangs bared and eyes crazed. That Allan is so vulnerable amplifies this feeling of danger. Romero also staged her encounters with more able-bodied people in such a way that she’s credibly dangerous. So Ella, though she’s “just a monkey”, is entirely believable as one of the main characters.
Allan is played by Jason Beghe and he’s equally excellent, a good match for Ella. Initially a fit, athletic type, he spirals into depression and even tries to commit suicide. Beghe was able to make us feel Allan’s pain without making him seem too heavy. And, when Ella enters his life, we feel his wonderment and gratitude for this tremendous change in his life.
The only time that Beghe stumbles is when he gets upset. I’m not sure that it was intentional, but his eyes narrowed and he looked like he was trying to be a “wiseguy”. Of course, Allan’s moods are affected by Ella, so perhaps the intention was to make his behaviour seem out of sorts. But it took a while for this concept to sink in, so it was a bit off-putting to me.
Still, the duo of Allan and Ella was incredibly watchable: Ladies and gentlemen, 1988’s best onscreen couple!!!
Speaking of which, I loved that Allan and Ella’s trainer, Melanie, got attached. This was to be expected, contextually, as it added romantic tension to the piece, but I like it because there was a ray of hope in the picture. I was also impressed with the fact that they had a well-crafted sex scene, one of the few featuring a quadriplegic. It was a nice touch.
The only places that I felt the picture fell apart were in the way Romero staged some of the accidents, notably Allan being hit by a truck (truck abruptly stops, Allan spins in the air) and the fire that took out Allan’s rival and ex (a black screen with flames on it), and the ending, in which Allan outsmarts Ella, which is somewhat credible but which looked fairly silly.
There were also a few moments that were poorly edited, leaving plot holes (case-in-point, the parakeet incident, or when Geoff injects Ella, alarming Allan, or when Allan’s phone is caught on his wheelchair). But it’s my understanding that the picture was originally much longer and that the studio trimmed it down – so it makes sense that some bits are unresolved.
Some critics feel that ‘Monkey Shines’ is too long and has too many subplots. Personally, I think that, despite its length, it works really well. In fact, I like that there are many subplots to follow, because watching a quadriplegic and his monkey could have gotten tedious after a while – there’s no way that it could have been nearly as riveting as ‘Misery’ was.
It’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s much better than any movie about a wheelchair-bound dude and his monkey could ever hope to be. Thanks to Jason Beghe and Boo’s performances and some excellent storytelling decisions by Romero, it transcends its low budget and genre limitations to become a credible science fiction suspense film.
Just don’t expect it to be a horror film, is all.
Date of viewing: Sept 2, 2017
It’s a bit underrated. Personally, I think some of Romero’s best films are not horror. I love Knightriders and Season of the Witch (aka Hungry Wives).
Awesome! The last one I have to watch if ‘Knightriders’. The only deterrent right now is its length. I’m very curious to see this one.
I LOVE Knightriders! It’s a fascinating movie. I hope you enjoy it!
Thanks. I hope so too. We’ll find out soon enough. 😉