Lately when I cruise the video aisles looking for tasty horror to sample, I find myself yearning for something…simple. Nothing with a boatload of subtext or heavy lifting involved; no downers and certainly nothing in the pandemic family, thank you very much. That traipsing up and down the aisles led me to Blue Monkey (1987), a fun throwback to the ‘50s giant monster flicks that flooded the drive-ins whether the teens were watching them or their date.
Released in late September by International Spectrafilm, Blue Monkey was summarily dismissed by critics at the time as just another low-budget shocker, even by horror fans; yes, I passed on this when it came out because I didn’t have a clue what a blue monkey was.
But that’s okay, because as it turns out, the filmmakers didn’t either; one of the kids in the film utters that maybe they’ll see a blue monkey on their excursion to the basement (I should point out that one of the kids is a very young Sarah Polley), and that’s that. (I should also point out that I read they wanted to call it Green Monkey, but AIDS was linked to green monkeys so they changed it. There is also a lack of green monkeys in the film.) There is a lot of blue lighting though, so let’s go with that and move on to the plot, shall we?
An elderly handyman is helping his senior crush in her greenhouse when he’s bitten by a tiny insect found on a plant she has from Micronesia; he instantly falls ill and she takes him to hospital. At the same time that she arrives, Detective Jim Bishop (Steve Railsback – Lifeforce) brings in his partner who’s been shot in the stomach. As his partner is being wheeled into surgery, Bishop witnesses the handyman cough up a six inch larva (hey, watch your language, dirty bird) before his premature expiration (what did I just tell you?).
Our ghoulish globule is taken under the wing of Dr. Rachel Carson (Gwynyth Walsh - The Crush), who throws it in a bowl not long before the group of kids add some blue growth agent to said bowl. As the patients above catch whatever the handyman had (the handy - man had), we learn that our larva is a grower, not a shower; can Bishop and Carson cure the infection and kill the non-blue non-simian creature?
There’s nothing new under the blue hue of Blue Monkey; but that seems to be by design rather than lack of inspiration. The film, directed by Canadian William Fruet (Spasms) and written by George Goldsmith (Children of the Corn) with Chris Koseluk, is played straight yet light, befitting the material nicely. A heavier touch would squash its inherent innocence; there is no real exploitation to speak of, unless drunk grannies fill your niche. It’s a light R, and any justification comes from the occasional effects work; Blue Monkey has no interest in being an ironic update, but rather a cheery tribute.
It hits every landmark along the way: the manly hero, the smart scientist girl that he woos, the authoritarian (John Vernon, in case you had any doubts as to the Canadianness on display), another scientist for exposition (A Mighty Wind’s Don Lake), the military, and of course the giant ant/mantis type thingy they’re all fighting. There’s even comic relief in the pairing of SCTV’s Joe Flaherty and Robin Duke as an anxious, expecting couple.
Blue Monkey embraces its gentle tropes while putting a modern aesthetic spin on the sub-genre, if not a thematic one; blues and blacks blanket the medical equipment, probably to cover the lack of effects budget yet it works as atmosphere. Another part of its charm is in the standard-issued characters, and their resultant arcs; there’s no need for tiresome backstories and redemption songs if the right cast can sell the illusion well enough.
Steve Railsback has always struck me as a more urbane Tommy Lee Jones, more condo than ranchero; basically a gruff exterior but in a nicer suit, and he gives Bishop a kindness that’s rather disarming. Vernon is gonna Vernon (even if it is a helicopter role), and Duke and Flaherty bring a familiar smile when needed. Probably the most gratifying role goes to Lake, delightful in the Christopher Guest films and here being allowed to be a nerdy hero alongside the more traditional sci-fi roles.
I suppose traditional is the word of the day as it applies to Blue Monkey; nonsensical title aside, it asks no more of the viewer than to watch a new take (affectionately told) on an old formula (that’s timeless) for ninety plus minutes. And whether or not today’s teenagers care what’s on this particular screen isn’t as beneficial as yesterday’s, who benefit the most from the comfort of the familiar. In the backseat or the front.
Blue Monkey is available on neither DVD or Blu-ray, so let’s all pray to the Boutique Label Gods that someone rescues this one.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1964)