Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Monkey Shines

Monkey Shines (1988), or Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear, must have been more shocking at the time of its release than it is today. Not so much for its content but it's pedigree. Based on a novel of the same name by Michael Stewart, Monkey Shines arrived on the scene written and directed by George Romero, whose previous film was Day of the Dead, itself preceded by Creepshow. I imagine most Romero fans at the time (and even today, possibly) anticipated another splatter piece in a similar vein as those two titles.

But that's not what audiences can expect from Monkey Shines. Not only is this the first true studio film for the notoriously independent Romero, Monkey Shines finds him staking out a more restrained and (comparatively) mainstream thriller instead of an ultra-graphic, comic-book apocalypse. It's not without its flaws, but it's a welcome change of pace from the undead master, and it finds him once again exploring a familiar theme: man's darker instincts and how they manifest themselves.

Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) has it all: a great physique, a beautiful girlfriend (Janine Turner), and is a standout track star and law student. One morning while out for a jog, he's struck by a truck and left paralyzed from the neck down. His girlfriend leaves him for the surgeon (Stanley Tucci) who operated on him, and his overbearing mother (Joyce Van Patten) hires a shrill nurse (Christine Forrest) who belittles and insults him. Depressed, Allan attempts suicide but fails. To help him out and cheer him up, his best friend Geoffrey (John Pankow) gives him a helping hands Capuchin monkey Ella (Boo with vocal effects by Frank "Megatron" Welker). Immediately, there's a connection between man and monkey; Ella seems to anticipate his every need and want, and Allan's spirits lift. What he doesn't know is that Geoffrey, an amphetamine user and chemist, has been injecting Ella with a compound composed of human brain cells to make her smarter, and Ella reacts jealously when Allan falls for animal trainer Melanie (Kate McNeil).

For a long time, Monkey Shines doesn't feel like thriller, focusing more on Allan's situation and his growing rapport with Ella, and it's only gradually that the horror elements begin creeping in. We feel Allan's frustrations and resentments building, and then Ella arrives performs a lot of cute routines - hugging Allan sweetly, dancing to Peggy Lee songs, picking up his books, asking for treats. The first indication something more is going on occurs at a law class where Ella raises her hand when Allan knows the answer to the teacher's question. From there, the bond between her and Allan only escalates. Not only does Ella seem to anticipate Allan's needs, she seems to telepathically be in tune with his repressed desires and anger, and she begins acting out his rage against those who have wronged him.

The violence is nowhere near as extreme nor as graphic as one would expect from a Romero movie (longtime collaborator Tom Savini is credited with the special makeup effects but doesn't get to do much). Much of its suggested, occurs off-screen, or is relatively bloodless. The tension comes from Allan's vulnerability; trapped in his useless body, he's no match for the nurse's pet bird, falling off the bed, or a four-pound simian that can scamper across furniture or hide under the bed, springing out when least expected. There's also the rage that overtakes his personality. The fact is Ella wouldn't do what she does unless there was already something bad inside of Allan for her to feed on. Man(n) has created a monster acting on instinct that he cannot control.

The other villain of Monkey Shines is science run amok. Even after being told by Allan something weird is going on with Ella and witnessing her behavior, Geoffrey continues to inject Ella with more of the serum to make her ever smarter. Why? A professional rivalry with the dean of his university (Stephen Root). Geoffrey believes his experiments are going to "strike gold," as he puts it, so he allows his friend to be exposed to a potentially dangerous animal. Human anger, jealousy, vanity, greed, and neglect are the perfect potion for creating a monster.

Like I said above, there are problems with the movie. Tucci as the doctor and Root as the dean are given prominent early scenes, but their roles ultimately contribute very little (ironic considering they're probably the best actors of the cast). And while the movie should be credited for making the monkey a relatively complicated character with a personality (no small feat), you think it could have extended the courtesy to the other females in the cast. The nurse and mother in particular are shrill, one-dimensional stereotypes that feel like they belong in a soap opera and not a horror thriller. With a bit more sympathy, the events that befall them might have been creepier, but instead, they are presented as deserving victims, which is not as effective.

Also, an otherwise effective climax involving a battle wits and wills between Allan and Ella is undercut by its resolution in which Allan suddenly finds the strength to move his hand at the right moment. Also lame are the "Carrie"-type ending (you know, one last jump scare, but it's ok because it's a dream) and the schmaltzy denouement.

Romero has always demonstrated his value as a director by going beyond the surface shocks, and that talent is on display in Monkey Shines. Yes, there is a shrieking, howling monkey chasing people with a razor blade and syringe by the end, but the deeper psychological horror stems from the human evil: the irresponsible scientific experimentation that created the monster and the repressed anger that fed her.