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 Love Scene Is Surprisingly Non-Gratuitous
For anyone watching Monkey Shines, it comes as no surprise when Allan falls in love with the kindly Melanie, played by Kate McNeil, who specializes in training monkeys to help individuals who are quadriplegic. In an early scene in the movie, Allan confides in his friend Geoffrey (John Pankow) that he thinks his girlfriend Linda is going to leave him.
"If she walks out on you now," Geoffrey replies, "f*ck her." Allan responds, "I can't." In the film's only love scene, however, we see that he actually can, just not in the way that he is used to. When Allan goes to spend the weekend with Melanie at the barn where she trains her monkeys, the two make love in a carefully constructed sequence that serves to genuinely drive home their connection. Melanie treats Allan as a whole person, unlike most of the others in his life, and the love scene functions as much more than a throwaway bit of titillation.
There's Commentary Aplenty About The Dangers Of Animal Experimentation
George Romero movies and unsubtle social messages go hand in hand, and Monkey Shines is no exception. From an early sequence in which animal rights activists are graffitiing the outside of the genetics lab where Ella is being dosed with human brain tissue, to the conflict between Geoffrey and his boss, a "sadist" who performs experiments that include placing a rat in a tank full of water to make it swim until it is exhausted, the dangers and ethical concerns of animal testing are vividly portrayed throughout the film.
And that's not even getting into the fact that Geoffrey's reckless testing is what creates the dangerous bond between Ella and Allan, leading her to act out his most violent impulses as the film goes on.
It Features Early-Career Performances From Stanley Tucci And Stephen Root
Ever wonder what Stanley Tucci looked like when he had hair? Wonder no more, as he plays the arrogant Dr. Wiseman in Monkey Shines, who initially seems like he has saved Allan's life, only for it to be later revealed that he overlooked a potentially life-changing aspect of Allan's paralysis and also moved in on Allan's girlfriend.
Stephen Root (Office Space, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Get Out) also shows up briefly, playing Geoffrey's sadistic boss at the genetics laboratory. While his role in the finished film is relatively brief, he actually had a larger part in the original ending, where he returns after taking Geoffrey's research, only to be slain by the very monkeys that he had been injecting with human brain tissue.
It Eschews Gore In Favor Of Drama And Psychological Horror
"Just how thin is that dividing line between civilized behavior and raw instinct?" That's how Richard Harrington began his 1988 review of Monkey Shines for The Washington Post. It's a question that the film is extremely concerned with. "That's what the devil is," Allan tells his friend Geoffrey, near the end of the film. "It's instinct. Animal instinct. It lives in us all."
"It's not a matter of the beast emerging against the human," another critic, Michael Wilmington, wrote, "but of humans perverting the beast." Whatever you take as the central thesis of Monkey Shines, audiences in 1988 were probably stunned to find such a restrained tale coming from Romero, a director whose oeuvre had been seen as synonymous with gore, thanks to his flagship Dead titles. Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Tribune, saw Romero as "an intellectual" who turned to horror as "one of our century's few ways of entering the allegorical mode."
The result, according to Kehr? "Freed from the nagging requirements of realism, Romero is able to construct abstract, speculative fables, filled with archetypes, symbols and shifting metaphors." That's an awfully heady set of words to associate with a movie called Monkey Shines, but it seems to get at exactly the sort of character-driven, psychological horror film that Romero had set out to create.
Monkey Shines spends much of its running time being filmed "like a soap opera slowly going insane." It isn't going for gory shocks or jump scare jolts, but for human emotion and psychological realism - even against the backdrop of its delightfully lurid idea that injecting Ella with human brain cells not only makes her smarter, but also enables her to psychically bond with Allan.