By the time Monkey Shines hit theaters in 1988, everyone should already have been on board with the fact that George Romero had more up his sleeve than just zombie flicks. In addition to the three films in his initial Dead trilogy, he had released at least two legitimate horror classics by then: his oddball vampire film Martin in 1977 and 1982's Creepshow. With 1988's Monkey Shines, Romero delivered what one contemporary critic called his "most complex and challenging" film - yet today it remains a footnote in Romero's filmography.
This may, in part, be due to the fact that Monkey Shines, one of Romero's first studio films and also one of his most expensive, was a box-office failure, meddled with by studios in a lengthy post-production that helped to sour Romero on Hollywood and drive him back to independent filmmaking. It may also not help that Monkey Shines is something very different than audiences had come to expect from the auteur, whose zombie films had become synonymous with shocking gore. Here, most of the red stuff is traded in for psychological suspense and philosophical musing, more in the vein of Hitchcock than the charnel house.
The story follows Allan Mann (played by Jason Beghe in a powerhouse performance in which he can only move his head), an athlete and law student who is paralyzed following an accident. His friend and former roommate Geoffrey (John Pankow) is a geneticist who is experimenting on capuchin monkeys by injecting them with human brain tissue. In an effort to help his friend - and his experiments - Geoffrey gives the now-quadriplegic Allan a trained helper monkey named Ella, selected from the monkeys in his lab.
What Geoffrey doesn't tell Allan is that Ella has been receiving the injections, which have made her smarter, and which allow Ella and Allan to bond in ways that nobody could have expected - including sequences in which Allan, entering a dream-like state, sees through Ella's eyes as she leaves the house on sinister errands. This bond, at first caring and warm, soon turns dangerous as Ella begins to act out Allan's most vicious fantasies.
The Premise Sounds Like Schlock, But Romero Plays It Straight
Sinister simians have been a part of the horror canon since the earliest days of film, and the "injecting monkeys with human brain tissue to make them more human" plot could have come straight out of the playbook of a mad scientist from a Poverty Row picture, but you won't find any ape-suit shenanigans in Monkey Shines.
In spite of some of the visuals used to sell the movie, such as photos of Ella wielding a straight razor, or the poster with its image of a toy monkey playing the cymbals, Romero plays Monkey Shines straight, crafting a film that's more about psychology and philosophy than about a homicidal simian.
In fact, with the exception of one early scene in which Allan tries to end his own life, there isn't anything that could be considered a horror sequence until more than 40 minutes into the film, as Romero takes his time setting up the characters and situations from which the tension will ultimately derive. "What sets this apart from most modern horror movies," Time Out says of the film, "is Romero's careful development of a credible emotional context" for the shocks that will follow.
It's A Twist On Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde
Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella was published in 1886, the Jekyll/Hyde formula has become one of the most dependable of horror film staples. The basic story, which deals with the duality of human nature, has been explored in a variety of different ways in books, plays, and film over the intervening years. In Monkey Shines, the same dynamic develops between the quadriplegic protagonist and his helper monkey, Ella.
At first, the two bond, and each one seems to make the other better. But as their relationship deepens, it becomes clear that Ella brings out the worst in her master, and he projects his own worst impulses onto her. Trapped inside his own unresponsive body, Allan's anger and resentment grow into rages that he cannot control - rages that Ella begins to act upon. By the end, just as with Jekyll and Hyde, even when Allan wants to stop, the symbiosis has become too complete for him to control it anymore.
The film's promotional materials say, "The monkey ruled the man, it climbed inside his brain." The film itself is less decisive about which figure truly represents Hyde and which is Jekyll, but the fact that Ella becomes, in effect, Allan's homicidal id provides a clear parallel to Stevenson's classic story.
The Narrative Is More Or Less A Love Triangle - But With A Monkey
It becomes clear really early on that Allan's helper monkey Ella is in love with him. In some of their earliest scenes together, she plays romantic music and climbs up onto his chest, putting her arms around his neck and hugging him. His early devotion to her is nearly as strong. He defends her against those who disparage her, including his live-in nurse Maryanne Hodges (played by Christine Forrest, Romero's wife at the time). Allan even says, "It's our house," referring to Ella and himself.
However, while Allan may love Ella the same way we might love the family dog, he isn't in love with her. Those feelings he saves for Ella's trainer, Melanie (Kate McNeil), who has taken a special interest in him since setting him up with Ella. Naturally, this relationship doesn't sit well with Ella, who becomes increasingly possessive and jealous of Allan's affections as the film goes on.
The Monkey Acts Out Allan's Angry Impulses In Increasingly Shocking Ways
For a George Romero film - with special effects by Tom Savini, no less - Monkey Shines is surprisingly tame in the gore department. Indeed, it takes roughly half the film's running time before Ella commits any misdeeds, apparently acting upon Allan's anger and resentment. Her first target is a pet bird owned by Allan's live-in nurse. However, she quickly works her way up to human targets, especially once Allan learns that his doctor may have overlooked a way for Allan's paralysis to be reversible.
Said doctor is also having an affair with Allan's ex-girlfriend. Ella visits the cabin where they are enjoying a romantic getaway and burns it down with the two of them inside. Finally, Ella gruesomely electrocutes Allan's mother while she's in the bath, then traps Allan inside the house, attacking anyone who tries to come inside. She wields a straight razor and turns poison meant for her against her former keeper when he tries to inject her with it.