Monkey Shines finds George A. Romero in the somewhat unusual position of adapting someone else’s work. Brought onto the project after the dissolution of his partnership with producer Richard P. Rubinstein, Romero claims this was the only time he ever adapted someone else’s work besides Stephen King (though I’m unsure how The Crazies and Two Evil Eyes figure into his estimation). Perhaps it’s this circumstance that results in Monkey Shines being considered one of Romero’s lesser works. As the writer and director known for inventing the modern zombie and injecting strong sociopolitical messages into independent horror cinema, tackling what looks to be a scientific thriller à la Michael Crichton for his first major studio-backed film seems beneath his talents. Yet, I can’t imagine anyone else directing this film and achieving similarly successful results.
Monkey Shines tells the story of Allan Mann (Jason Beghe), an athlete and law student left paralyzed from the neck down when a truck intercepts his idyllic morning run. Allan struggles to adjust to life as a quadriplegic after being dumped by his girlfriend, Linda (Janine Turner), and left in the care of his overbearing mother, Dorothy (Joyce Van Patten) and irritable personal nurse, Maryanne (Christine Forrest). Though his house is equipped with voice-activated systems and he is provided a motorized wheelchair he can control with his mouth, Allan can’t escape feelings of helplessness and self-pity. Following a suicide attempt, Allan’s friend and scientist, Geoffrey (John Pankow), works with a specialist, Melanie (Kate McNeil), to train a helper monkey to take care of Allan. Unbeknownst to both Allan and Melanie, Geoffrey has been injecting the monkey, Ella, with an experimental formula based on human memory cells (which includes actual human brain tissue) intended to boost her intelligence.
Ella becomes a physical extension of Allan’s consciousness, carrying out the daily tasks he no longer can. As Ella’s mind continues to advance, Allan is able to restore some semblance of his old self, resuming his studies and even developing a romantic relationship with Melanie. However, Allan’s good fortune does not last. Both he and Ella begin demonstrating uncharacteristic hostility. All of the bitterness that had festered following his accident is unleashed through Ella as a result of the telepathic link enabled by Geoffrey’s serum. Ella actualizes Allan’s vengeful fantasies, starting with Maryanne’s pesky bird, Bogie, and then moving on to his ex-girlfriend and Dr. Wiseman (Stanley Tucci), the doctor who botched his surgery and with whom Linda is now in a relationship. Allan recognizes the increasing rage in both himself and Ella, and he has Geoffrey take her back to his lab. Geoffrey, unwilling to accept the trial as a failure, tries tuning in to Allan and Ella’s frequency by injecting himself with the serum and, in the process, allows Ella to escape. This leads to a suspenseful and prolonged climax evocative of a slasher movie—only with a telepathic monkey standing in for the usual masked killer.
The story is concerned with ideas about duality and codependence, as well as the sometimes murky ethics of science and the loss of control—specifically over one’s body and emotions. Romero stated that while his adaptation remained faithful to Michael Stewart’s novel, he enriched the Jekyll and Hyde themes, with Allan representing Jekyll and Ella standing in for Hyde. Once their “mind meld” (as Geoffrey refers to it) takes hold, Allan can no longer perceive the boundary between himself and Ella. Allan’s secret resentments inspire Ella to take violent action, while Ella’s aggression infects Allan, creating a negative feedback loop. When Ella is nearby, Allan can’t help but slip into the anger and bitterness he feels due to the loss of his autonomy. That is why Allan has Geoffrey remove Ella from the house, to break this caustic bond. And when Ella kills people (and bird) who have inspired Allan’s (easily provoked) indignation, Allan sees through her eyes (in POV shots evoking Sam Raimi’s trademark camera work from The Evil Dead). As Allan says about Ella at one point, “I’m part of her. She’s part of me.”
Romero complicates this duality with Geoffrey, the mad scientist who I would argue is the movie’s true Jekyll, shooting himself up with amphetamines to stave off sleep and concocting experimental drugs that he administers in secret. Even after discovering that Ella has been leaving Allan’s house through an attic window, Geoffrey withholds this information from Allan. Under pressure to produce results from his nosey and callous boss, Dean Burbage (Stephen Root), Geoffrey risks his closest friend’s safety. He’s undoubtedly responsible for everything bad that happens, yet he’s sympathetic and perhaps my favorite character in the movie. Having not read the source material myself, I can’t say for certain, but it appears this particular twist was Romero’s handiwork. From what I could glean while doing research, the serum that Geoffrey creates in the movie takes the form of intelligence-boosting pills in the novel. And while it’s only administered to Ella in the movie, the book sees Allan willingly taking the pills as well. Romero’s changes enhance the movie’s dynamic, making Allan not just a victim of science gone wrong, but of personal betrayal. He is an unwitting test subject, and the side effects of Geoffrey’s experiment extend his loss of control from the physical to the emotional.
Beyond his contributions to the narrative, Monkey Shines feels like a trademark Romero movie thanks to the involvement of his frequent collaborators. Though often referred to as an auteur, Romero’s style was actually one of true collaboration. He trusted the people he worked with and welcomed their input. When we talk about what makes a “Romero” movie, we’re often talking about the close-knit circle of comrades who worked together on these films. Though Orion did force Romero to change the ending of the movie (much to his dissatisfaction), key crew members indicated there was otherwise little interference from the studio, meaning the production was business as usual. For Romero, this was a business of family and friends. Longtime staples Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero worked on the film’s challenging special makeup effects, which had to mimic reality rather than present the usual ghoulish fantasy. Pasquale Buba was back in the editor’s chair, one of six times he worked in that capacity on a Romero movie. Even Romero’s (then) wife, Christine Forrest, was along for the ride, playing Allan’s often grumpy nurse and delivering what might be the funniest line of the movie. And, of course, Romero’s most distinctive collaborator was his city, Pittsburgh, which serves as the film’s backdrop.
Monkey Shines’ cast is noteworthy for its collection of character actors, many of whom were just getting their start when the movie came out. This was Jason Beghe’s first lead performance, and for the majority of the movie, he has to act exclusively from the neck up. Like Logan Marshall-Green in this year’s Upgrade, it’s a challenging performance that deserves more recognition. Kate McNeil appeared in The House on Sorority Row and a couple of TV shows before this, and she brings such warmth to the movie. The romance between Beghe and McNeil is one of the movie’s emotional anchors, offering up a dose of sweetness amidst all the repressed (and then unleashed) anger. John Pankow delivers a great performance as Geoffrey, who grounds his mad scientist character with humor and relatability. And Monkey Shines all but introduced the world to Stanley Tucci and Stephen Root, both of whom were cast in their first named film roles thanks to Romero.
If Beghe and McNeil are one of Monkey Shines’ emotional anchors, the other is Boo, the (primary) monkey who played Ella. Romero and the film’s crew have talked at length about the difficulty of shooting with monkeys, yet Romero gets a genuine performance out of Boo. The scene in which Allan and Ella bond while Peggy Lee’s “That's All” plays in the background is achingly sweet and heartbreaking once you get a hint of the direction the story is heading. Despite carrying out all of the film’s violence, Boo—like Geoffrey—is a sympathetic antagonist. She is the product of someone else’s choices and she spends just as much time melting your heart as she does chilling it. At the end of the day, what Romero brings to Monkey Shines is a deep humanity for his characters. Romero was always great at pointing out humanity’s flaws, but he was equally skilled at injecting pathos in unlikely places, whether with zombies or killer, telepathic monkeys.
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