Monkey Shines is a 1988 George A Romero (RIP) adaptation of a 1983 novel by Michael Stewart of the same name, unless you count the inane subtitle “An Experiment in Fear”. In that case it’s not quite the same title… because it has more words… Anyway, this is a movie about a man and his monkey, or to be more specific, a quadriplegic man and his hyper-intelligent, rage-spewing hellbeast of a monkey that may or may not have some level of Stephen King-style “shine,” and will stop at nothing to kill you in creative ways. If you haven’t seen this relatively overlooked Romero flick, take caution, as it’s about to get very spoilery up in here.
Reviewed by: Jake
Meet Allan Mann: An aspiring athlete and all-around dreamboat. His interests include long walks on the beach, ballistic stretching in his birthday suit, and cramming bricks into raggedy backpacks to do sprints up suburban streets. Unfortunately for our hero, his commitment to being healthy and supple carries with it some unforeseen and catastrophic consequences. Let me tell you about it…
It all started one beautiful weekend morning. Allan, clad in his signature grey sweats, was nearing the top of the final hill in his morning run when suddenly a salty canine crossed his path. Startled, our intrepid voyager swerved into the street and came body-to-bumper with a garbage truck. Just like that, his gift was extinguished as he awoke to find himself paralyzed from the neck down. Cue the sad trombone sound effect.
As his body began to wither, so too did his relationship with his girlfriend, who promptly left to bone the very doctor who performed life-saving surgery on him mere weeks before. Drunk with grief, Allan attempted suicide, only to be rescued by his friend, Geoffrey. In a last ditch effort to help Allan, Geoff puts his career as a promising scientist to work, injecting human brain tissue into monkeys to boost intelligence, ultimately giving the smartest of the group in his lab to Allan as a companion and helper. At first, the move was a homerun. Allan loved his monkey, Ella, and she quickly became more helpful than his bible-beating bitch of a hired assistant. However, as Allan’s companionship with Ella grew, he began noticing a change in himself. From here, the movie establishes a sort of psychic connection between man and monkey that develops into a positive feedback loop of rage.
Allan starts to lose it, and Ella goes totally off the rails, racking up a body count as she methodically extinguishes the life of everyone Allan knows. It all boils down to a monkey-staged home invasion and subsequent one-on-one battles of wits, with Allan finally outsmarting the primate enough to kill it with his bare fucking teeth. In a stroke of good fortune, he is able to go under the knife again and regain use of his extremities. Careful on those runs in the future, Allan. You scamp.
What the Movie Does Right
In short, this (spoilers):
These are some of the best lines I’ve ever heard, and the movie is pretty much full of them. Quotability factor aside, the above points to two key things this movie does right. First up is the acting. Jason Beghe does an incredible job as Allan, and really makes you feel for the character as his world implodes on itself. John Pankow is electric as Geoff and brings a lot of humor to the flick. And then there’s Boo, who plays Ella. Way to go, Boo. You knocked it out of the park. The next point highlighted by the video above is George Romero’s sense of humor. For such a dark drama at its core, he manages to add eccentricities to the film at all the right points. This helps with the ebb and flow of tension and adds a bit of interest to what is frankly an overlong flick (more on that later).
The other main thing this movie does right is its uniqueness. How many other movies (forget horror) have you seen involving a quadriplegic and a service monkey? Now take away any that may have been made for tv, Hallmark Channel joints. What are you left with? Nothing? Ok. Thought so. It is worth mentioning that the story is based off a 1983 novel by Michael Stewart. I haven’t read the book so I can’t speak with full confidence about the movie’s faithfulness, but the idea behind the story is extremely unique. When we talk about impactful horror from a very high level, you can essentially boil things down to a game of resources and how effectively/believably those are stripped away. With Monkey Shines, Allan’s character essentially begins with no way to fight back. In the end, he has to lean on his mind (of all things) to see him through. With such helplessness embedded into the plot, it is kind of surprising just how intriguing the story is given the seemingly silly premise.
What the Movie Does Wrong
To put it simply, it’s too damn long. There are sequences of this movie that could have easily been removed in totality with zero impact on the final product. We didn’t need the law school bit. You could easily combine the nurse character with Allan’s mom to gain some time. We could have dramatically shortened up the relationship between Geoffrey and his Dean, though with the benefit of hindsight, it’s kind of cool to see Stephen Root in his first screen role.
It’s extremely difficult to pay attention for the duration of this thing, and we should also take into consideration that the nearly two hour runtime is a significantly cut version of the film. Orion Pictures actually had to go in an chop about 50% of the shot footage. 50 fucking percent. Talk about efficiencies... It’s also worth noting that the jumpscare at the end, which I actually like, was a studio addition to a far more ambiguous final note in Romero’s original version.
One other nit with the movie: the subtitle. Why? Were there legal/IP related nuances that required a subtitle be added? Why was “An Experiment in Fear” the chosen name? The experiment in question in this movie had nothing to do with fear. That was more of an unfortunate side effect. At least stick to something in the movie itself - “Monkey Shines: Dude Does Naked Ballistic Stretching but Then Can’t Because He Gets Plowed by a Trash Truck” has a nice ring to it. Don’t you think?
Story: 5 - This movie gets some serious novelty points and I really enjoy how Romero is able to craft a horrific scenario from what is very close to just being a drama. It’s hard to go very high in this category because I don’t think it worked that well at all times, but it can stand on the merits of its uniqueness in this department.
World-Building / Immersion: 3.5 - This is a movie where you will be very aware that you are watching a movie. There are some great lines and the final, home invasion-esque act is a well done exercise in tension, but the movie is way too goddamned long, and there are numerous scenes of first-person psychic monkey dreamland that really fall flat in their aging. It holds you in just enough.
Scare-Factor: 3 - I mentioned the final act above, and I think that is really the only sequence of the film that musters up some scare (aside from the studio added jumpscare at the very end). Overall, this is more of a drama, but it’s worth noting the immense level of existential fear packed into this story via Allan’s situation/character. Also, if you don’t like needles, there are some scenes in this one that could get to you.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 5 - This is where I usually place the judicious lack thereof type of film and then see if it should get bonus points or vice versa based on the sporadic uses of effects throughout and how well they aid the overall execution of the plot. Ultimately, there are some good props and set designs here that really illustrate Allan’s predicament and just how hard it is for him to do anything as a quadriplegic, but there are some zany monkey dream sequences that have aged relatively poorly and are jarring in their implementation. It balances out as middling in my book.
Overall: 6 - This is a movie I would recommend any horror fan see based almost entirely on its uniqueness. While I don’t find it to be a great movie by any stretch, there are enough memorable lines to keep you engaged beyond the initial conceit of the film. Plus, it’s a fucking Romero flick. Just watch it.