Allan Mann is a bitter, angry and vengeful man ever since an accident left him paralysed from the neck down. His life changes when he’s given Ella, a monkey trained to meet his every need. When Ella starts anticipating Allan’s thoughts, strange things start to happen and Allan realises that he must stop the creature before she takes over his mind.
The late George A. Romero was a horror film great, giving us Night of the Living Dead and its sequels amongst a broad catalogue of genre entries, many of which had an underlying message about society. His films could be read as social satire as well as engaging horror films.
Monkey Shines would be Romero’s first studio picture, in this case for the beleaguered Orion Pictures and starred Jason Beghe (who would later go onto success in Dick Wolf’s Chicago franchise, primarily Chicago PD). Beghe portrays Allan as a sympathetic character, robbed of his ambition by a tragic accident and haunted by what may be happening. Even as Ella’s influence on Allan’s attitude becomes more apparent, it’s easy to see it through the eyes of a man furious at what he can’t control – his disability. The film is, largely, one about control – how people want to control each other and how primal instinct controls us.
Romero makes us care about Allan and Ella, giving us an endearing story of love and friendship, making it more disturbing when Ella’s true nature comes to the surface. There’s humour early on, with the nurse, Mary-Ann, finding her home-help role usurped by the little helper monkey and not taking it kindly. He gives him an overbearing mother, an emotionally conflicted girlfriend and a small collective of friends and associates that pass in and out of the narrative, sometimes weighing it down. As the story progresses, the tone shifts and we get a murder film with elements of horror, though Romero doesn’t play on the violent acts. He opts for a more thoughtful tone, with the protagonist largely restricted in movement, it’s up to Ella to carry out the acts, with Allan unsure of what’s real and what isn’t.
The film delves into a number of topics – animal experimentation, survival, primal behaviour, love and obsession – all with Romero’s deft ability to deliver an effective horror story whilst digging deeper into social issues. It is, however, a bit of a muddle of a film which takes the central story and throws in a number of other aspects that dilute the premise as we shift from the drama of handling Allan’s condition and the horror of Ella and Allan’s psychic link.
Visually, the film has some really impressive moments. Much of Ella’s killer behaviour is handled in the first person, giving us the sense of being in Allan’s mind and adding to the sense of the disturbed. James A Contner builds an increasingly disturbing world in Monkey Shines. From the bright light of day and normality to the darkness of the house under Ella’s frenzied control and Allan’s increasing desperation, the film is well realised.
Curiously, despite having a 113 minute runtime and, thus, plenty of time for all the elements to breathe, Romero doesn’t capitalise on this. It’s almost as if he was writing to length instead of creating a story that happened to run long.
Monkey Shines is an effective film that suffers somewhat from being too long for the story that it wants to tell. It showcases George A Romero’s ability to tell a compelling story, bringing together elements of horror, mystery and drama. The performances are strong, with Beghe’s intensity shining through.
Eureka Entertainment has brought together a catalogue of superb special features. There’s an insightful audio commentary from film critic Travis Crawford and one from Romero himself; An Experiment in Fear is definitely the crown jewel of the bunch, with cast and crew reflecting on the film; and, to top it all off, there’s ‘vintage’ footage from the films release, including the original electronic press kit and behind the scenes footage.
Dir: George A Romero
Scr: George A Romero
Cast: Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeil, Joyce Van Patten, Stanley Tucci
Prd: Peter Grunwald
DOP: James A Contner
Runtime: 113 mins
Monkey Shines is out on dual format DVD and Blu-Ray from 8th October 2018