Practicing the utmost in self-control, Judge Patrick Naugle only makes one "monkey spanking" joke in this review of his favorite kind of movie: B-grade horror. "How scary can a monkey really be?" you might find yourself asking. Well, I'm wondering the same thing. Read Patrick's review to find out.
Our review of Monkey Shines (1988) (Blu-ray), published December 4th, 2014, is also available.
An experiment in fear.
What could be more terrifying than a small simian monkey on the loose? Well, all right, lots of things. But not in the realm of Monkey Shines. Directed by George Romero (who brought us such horror classics as Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead and Creepshow) and starring Jason Beghe ("Melrose Place," and…uh…did he work again after this?), Monkey Shines is the story of science gone awry with horrific consequences. A quintessential '80s horror film, Monkey Shines is out on DVD from MGM (and we even got an anamorphic version. Woo-hoo!).
Facts of the Case
Allan Mann (Beghe) seems to have it all. He's healthy, he's got a good-looking girlfriend (Janine Turner of "Northern Exposure"), a good job…things are looking pretty good for Allan. That is until he goes out for a jog one morning with a backpack full of bricks on (I'm not making this up). While taking his leisurely run he's hit by a semi-truck.
I think this incident gives us all fair warning about jogging while building materials are strapped to your back.
Allan is taken to the hospital where his doctor (Stanley Tucci) tells him that he's paralyzed from the neck down. His only body functions are in his neck and his head. He surprisingly doesn't take this very well. For Allan's homecoming he's thrown a party where his meddling mother (Joyce Van Patton) tells him that he's here to begin his "new life."
In the meantime, Allan's friend Geoffrey (John Pankow from "Mad About You") is working with simian monkeys in his laboratory. He's seeing what happens when he mixes in some human brain tissue and injects it into the monkey's blood stream. Like every really bad idea, it seemed like a good one at the time (I can see the formulation of this idea now; "Hey Bob, let's see what happens when we take human goo and stick it inside a cantankerous simian!"). Geoffrey gets the idea to take one of these monkeys and let Allan have it to help him get around. Geoffrey meets Melanie (Kate McNeil), a local monkey trainer for the handicapped, who thinks she can help him. At her training laboratory she helps train "Ella," who is then dropped off at Allan's place to help him with menial tasks such as dialing the phone or turning pages in a book. Allan is ecstatic; Ella is everything he could have hoped for (you know, besides walking and peeing on his own).
But things are not as they seem. Allan is having weird dreams at night. And he's getting a bit moody with fits of outbursts. And why does Ella seem to have a devilish look all the time? Could it be she's had too much caffeine? Or could it be there she's got a bit of a homicidal streak in her?
What do YOU think?
This movie was directed by Mr. George "Is this gross or what?" Romero. Redundant as it may be to say, I'm a fan. Some of my favorite horror films are included in his Living Dead trilogy. This is why it was all the more disappointing to watch Monkey Shines. The idea is good: take a whacked-out insane monkey, throw in a paraplegic, add blood, and presto! You have a horror film that sounds pretty cool. Unfortunately, this recipe comes out a bit half-baked.
Before I start prattling on about Monkey Shines' problematic areas, let us start with the good. First and foremost, Monkey Shines has at its core a good director and story. Romero is the type of director that could probably take two lights, two actors, and a jar of blood and make it scary. Even in some of his lesser films, like the underrated Stephen King film The Dark Half, Romero is adept at bringing gruesome images and tense scares to the screen. His Living Dead films were able to be splattery while still being frightening (how many films can you name that have done this?). In Monkey Shines, Romero tends to stay away from the gore and instead sets his vision firmly in psychological horror. I found it interesting that über-makeup man Tom Savini did the effects for Monkey Shines. Aside of some blood, hardly an effect can be found. Usually I'd be the first to cry foul on this…a Romero film without a flying kidney? Hard to believe, but Monkey Shines contains none of that. And for once that's not necessarily a bad thing.
The performances in Monkey Shines are (mostly) above average. Lead man Jason Beghe acts well considering he can only use his head and neck most of the film. Though his performance tends to sometimes be uneven (there's hardly a scene where he seems really upset over his paralyzed condition), Beghe does well with the source material, and hey, he knows how to really spank his monkey. (Juvenile? Maybe…but still, you got a cheap laugh out of it, didn't you?).
And of course there's the monkey. Ella (played by newcomer Boo…and I can't believe I just said that) is not really all that terrifying until the very end (where she starts using a razor blade and syringe needles in very unbecoming ways). The performance, however, is very well done. Apparently Boo must have been a natural on camera, as most of the scenes involving her look very real and spontaneous.
Monkey Shines is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and a pan and scan version. Overall, the transfer looks good, with only the slightest grain spotted. Slight edge enhancement was spotted, though nothing to get frustrated with. Colors tended to look slightly muted, but that may also have been the way Romero wanted the film shot. Overall the picture quality is above average with only the smallest problems. Audio is passable with a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround in both English and French. Dialogue and effects were mixed evenly with music, though your rear speakers won't get much of a work out. Not very surprising since this is A.) from MGM and B.) from 1988. A mediocre but passable sound mix by MGM.
For extras the only thing we get is a full frame theatrical trailer. I'm always a lover of '80s horror movie trailers, as they always seem cheesy and goofy. Monkey Shines is no exception. Though a bit grainy, this will be a fun, quick watch for fans of the genre.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Monkey Shines' initial troubles lie with its main character. Ella is just not frightening. Sure, there are a few scenes where she looks somewhat menacing, but overall you can't really make a monkey the size of a breadmaker all that terrifying. One of the keys to many a good horror movie is to have something that is horrific, at the same time being grounded in reality. Monkey Shines has the second part right. The idea of being confined to a wheelchair is obviously scary for most of us. The prospect of having something evil around you 24-7 is even more frightening. Throw in the fact that it's a dwarfishly cute monkey and you start to feel less anxiety ridden.
Another downfall of Monkey Shines is the music score by David Shire. What were they thinking? When needed there is tense, taught music to underscore the horror. But in most other scenes of love, pain or triumph, the score sounds like something pulled from an old "Dynasty" episode. Nothing screams, "hey, it's the '80s" like trumpets and harps in the background of a lovemaking scene (between a girl and a guy, not guy and monkey. Just wanted to clear that up before I started getting letters).
The human performances are fitting if not a tad overdone. Stephen Root, so funny in Office Space and on the TV show "Newsradio," is sorely miscast as a stiff doctor, playing him as a one-note "villain." John Pankow (the cloying Ira from "Mad About You") fairs better as Gregory, Allan's best friend and medical Dr. Frankenstein. I found his Ira character annoying on TV, but here he is likable and interesting, realizing the mistakes he's made with his "monster monkey."
Unfortunately, the mistakes in Monkey Shines are many as well.
For '80s horror you could do oh so much worse than Monkey Shines (don't believe me? Try renting Munchies and see how they stack up). I wasn't enthralled while watching Monkey Shines (and from what I have read Romero didn't have the best time filming this either). The consummate horror fan, however, might swallow this horror nugget easier than I did. It's nice to see a widescreen transfer of this film, and though there are hardly any extras, the $15-20 price tag isn't terribly harsh on your wallet.
One again we have a hung jury…watch it and let me know what you think.
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• Theatrical Trailer
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