Following his death in July of 2017, George A. Romero’s back catalogue has been made more readily available and given the ‘label’ treatment. The Criterion Collection released Night of the Living Dead (1968), Arrow Video curated Before Night After Dawn – a boxset containing a trio of his more obscure titles – while Eureka Entertainment released a limited edition Dual Format disc of his 1988 film Monkey Shines as part of their Classics range.
Law student and athlete Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) – A. Mann, get it? – is involved in a life-changing accident which leaves him paralysed from the neck down. Growing increasingly frustrated within his newly adapted home, overbearing mother and (Joyce Van Patten) and dwindling personal relationships, he attempts to take his own life. His despair and cry for help is heard by closest friend Geoffrey (John Pankow), a scientist (with an increasing addiction to speed) who has, not only, been injecting himself but primates with a serum containing human tissue. In an act of generosity, Geoff donates one of his Capuchins to service monkey trainer Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil) who trains Ella (Boo) to assist Allan, and hopefully lift his spirits by restoring some of his independence. Over time, Ella becomes a loyal and affectionate companion, however, their bond starts to take a sinister turn when Ella starts to act out.
Based upon Michael Stewart’s novel of the same name, Monkey Shines was Romero’s first – and subsequently last – foray into working with a studio. The fact that he returned to independent projects after this experience speaks volumes. As does the film itself, or at the very least the way it has been put together. There are multiple subplots over the course of the lengthy 113-minute duration which don’t always work but nearly always feel one too many. The pacing, however, is purposeful, allowing the audience time to empathise with Beghe’s Mann. The ‘horror’ is internalised, tension implied yet rarely seen with an overarching and prevalent theme of mental health.
The thing about Romero’s films is that while they are weighted in the horror genre, they tend to be far richer and allegorical in tone, beyond the odd scare, which make them all the more intelligent and effective. However interesting this film appears though, it never feels like a complete Romero, and certainly not that ending. When Ella’s ‘instinct’ kicks in and goes full throttle – combined with the inexplicable score – it becomes laughable. Riffing off Alien (1979) feels like a huge misstep. Thankfully, the alternate ending – George’s ending – is included in the disc extras. Spoiler: it works so much more convincingly (and satisfyingly) than the one the studio insisted on.
Studio interference aside, this is Romero at his most Hitchcockian, reminiscent of something his Creepshow collaborator Stephen King would write with shades of Rear Window and hues of Vertigo, and yet still feels somewhat original. There is plenty of merit outside of those last ludicrous moments, and fans of the Pittsburgh-native filmmaker will lap up this presentation, especially Tom Savini’s FX. Those monkey-point-of-view shots are inspired and Beghe’s simian teeth prosthesis so subtle few will spot them.
Though it may not be one of Romero’s more thoughtful pieces of work, somewhat neutered thanks to the studio, Monkey Shines is highly entertaining. A melodrama-horror about a man and the literal monkey on his back, played here by the remarkable capuchin Boo.
We still miss you, George.