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 Film's Climax Is Over The Top And A Little Heartbreaking
When the only thing you can move is your head, how do you stop the vindictive simian that you've unwittingly released before it can harm the woman you love? If you're Allan, the quadriplegic protagonist of Monkey Shines, you lure her up to your neck to cuddle, then bite down on her, shaking your head hard enough to snap her spine.
It's a scene that is at once over the top and ultimately sad. While the two are, as Los Angeles Times critic Michael Wilmington noted in his 1988 review of the film, "a match made in hell," it is also clear that Ella and Allan love each other, and the genuine tenderness between the two helps to sell a scene that could otherwise just have been silly.
There's A Not-So-Great Jump Scare Near The End Of The Film
For most of its running time, Monkey Shines eschews horror movie trappings. There isn't much of a body count, and things don't get even remotely scary until more than halfway through. While the film's climax may take place during a dark and stormy night, most of the rest of the movie avoids feeling like a typical horror film.
There is an occasional jump scare in Monkey Shines, though, with one particularly jarring example right near the end. After the climactic encounter between Allan and Ella, we see what turns out to be a dream sequence in which Allan is undergoing back surgery to correct his paralysis. He flatlines, and a bloody monkey suddenly leaps from the wound in his back - played by one of a handful of monkey puppets designed by Tom Savini for use in the film. The puppets share screentime with Boo, a real capuchin monkey, and several look-alikes.
The last-minute jolt was dictated by the studio against Romero's wishes and was added as part of a larger campaign to make the ending more audience-friendly. The result is startling, to be sure, but feels out of place with the rest of the film.
The Studio Imposed Some Changes To The Ending
While the general belief is that the studio forced Romero to give the film a happier ending than the one in the book upon which it is based, Romero actually said that he made the decision to change the ending of the novel. In the book by Michael Stewart, Allan doesn't recover from his paralysis. Romero later said that he was wrong to change the ending, and that the book's less upbeat conclusion would have been the way to go.
The studio did meddle in the film considerably, however. Romero's original script was 240 pages long, much of which didn't make it onto the screen. In addition to adding in a gratuitous jump scare in the film's closing moments, the studio removed a sequence from the ending of the film that offered closure to one of the movie's major themes: the drama within the lab where Ella was experimented upon, and the animal rights protestors who objected to it.
While the film still keeps much of the conflict between Geoffrey (John Pankow) and his boss Dean Burbage (Stephen Root), the excised material, which is available as a bonus feature on some home video releases of the film, shows Burbage being confronted by the animal rights protestors and then, ultimately, attacked by the other monkeys in the lab, who have been dosed with the same human brain tissue as Ella.
The Capuchin Monkey Gives An Incredible Performance
"What the film's success or failure really hangs on, of course, is whether we swallow the idea that a monkey the size of a domestic cat could pose a tangible threat to fully-grown humans," Slarek writes in a review of the film on Blu-ray for Cine Outsider. Helping to sell this idea is an astonishing performance by Boo (and some stand-ins), a real-life capuchin monkey actually trained by Helping Hands to do the very tasks that Ella is called upon to do in the film - minus any actual bloodshed, of course.
"Watching this movie, one loves Ella, bleeds for her, wishes desperately to preserve her from harm," Michael Wilmington wrote in his 1988 review of the film for the Los Angeles Times. It isn't just that Boo's portrayal of Ella makes her look clever. Plenty of close-ups on the monkey's face sell her emotional state, as well, from her love of Allan to the moment when the roles of "master" and "slave" become "blurred in Ella's marble eyes," as Dan Owen wrote for Frame Rated.
According to Richard Harrington, writing for The Washington Post, Ella is not only the antagonist of the film but also "the ultimate victim."
"Her scenes with Beghe are at once tender and terrifying as they battle it out to see who's the boss," Harrington wrote in his 1988 review. "Some closeups make Ella seem as ferocious as King Kong, but at other times she looks as if she's just been kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Evolving all too quickly from the animal kingdom to humankind, maybe she has."