Monkey Shines

March 15, 2011

Of the Hollywood directors who specialize in the much-derided horror genre, whose ranks include Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, George Romero is the elder statesman. Romero traces his legacy back to the low-budget classic Night of the Living Dead, the 1968 movie that definitively validated Romero’s license to chill.

Romero mixes his own modestly budgeted movies, mainly filmed around his home turf of Pittsburgh, with the occasional studio product like Creepshow. His newest, Monkey Shines, is in the latter category; it’s handsomely-produced and well-acted, two qualities that are not always present in Romero’s smaller movies.

And the subject matter is intriguing and offbeat. The story draws some of its inspiration from a successful real-life program in Boston in which monkeys are trained to perform duties for quadriplegics—a sort of simian variation on the seeing-eye dog.

A law student (Jason Beghe) is rendered a quadriplegic when he is hit by a car. His good friend, a scientist (John Pankow), has been working on experiments with monkeys that enhance the animals’ intelligence. This somewhat mad doctor donates his most gifted monkey, Ella, for training by a professional (Kate McNeil) who’s been working with monkeys that help disabled people.

So Beghe gets a primate helper—but soon, he begins to suspect that the monkey is developing a weird telepathic connection with him. Ella, who has free run of the house, starts acting out Beghe’s more mean-spirited wishes, including the murderous feelings he has for his unfaithful wife.

The first hour and more of Monkey Shines presents a lot of effective scenes, horrific and otherwise. Ella and her master share an unexpected fondness for the music of Peggy Lee, for example, and they also share a dislike of his cranky nurse and her bothersome parakeet (the little bird, you may guess, has a limited lifespan).

I think the film gets overextended in the final going—things should really wind up about 15 minutes before they do. But Romero brings his usual intelligence to the proceedings, and plays the horror scenes with an unusual degree of gorelessness. This film also contains a treatment of a disabled character that is as unsentimental as any I’ve seen in a movie.

The monkey can really act, too, suggesting malevolence and sweetness and braininess. Her real name is Boo.

First published in the Herald, August 4, 1988

If John Pankow is in a lead role, it must be the Eighties. I saw a little bit of this movie on cable a few nights ago and I’m not sure I can stand by the review’s assertion that the film is in general well-acted. But Romero always brings value, and Monkey Shines is full of ideas, embracing what so many horror films and fairy tales implicitly suggest: that the monster (or monkey) is no more than our own impulses let loose, doing our bidding while we keep our hands clean. I don’t know where else Boo’s career went, but we will look at a well-traveled simian actor in tomorrow’s posting.