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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Monkey Shines (1988) Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)

Monkey business

Jason Beghe plays Allan Mann, a runner for whom tragedy strikes when he is hit by a car. While the doctor, John Wiseman (Stanley Tucci) attempts an operation on his spine, he ends up being quadriplegic. He is now confined to a wheelchair, is looked after by a temperamental battleaxe of a nurse named Maryanne (Christine Forrest) and, worst of all, his girlfriend Linda (Janine Turner) decides to leave him behind for the very man who operated on him.

However, a ray of hope enters his life after his friend, a scientist named Geoffrey (John Pankow), introduces him to a capuchin monkey which he has been experimenting on, who goes by the name of Ella (played by Boo). Initially, Allan and Ella get on like a house on fire, with the creature providing a mixture of companionship and assistance in exchange for reward treats dispensed from a special canister in his wheelchair. However, during times when he becomes frustrated with his physical limitations and the inconsiderate behaviour of those around him, Ella seems to instinctively pick up on his anger and starts acting out his barely-suppressed thoughts of violence against those who cross him. In return, Allan begins to have visions of Ella’s rampages…

Watch a trailer:

Intelligent chills from a horror master

Monkey Shines is arguably the most underrated entry in the filmography of George Romero, a much-admired horror director who sadly passed away last year. The film garnered mixed reviews on its release - and even in retrospect, it tends to divide horror fans. Some criticise it for being drawn out, saddled with an implausible premise and lacking in the director’s usual gore. What they tend to forget, however, is that even his zombie classics took their time to get to the bloodshed, concentrating instead on developing the (typically fraught) relationships between the main characters. As for the dead coming back to life and devouring human flesh… well… that’s not exactly realistic either, guys.

It’s arguably more understandable that the lack of graphic flesh-tearing and innards may have failed to meet the expectations of those who had come to it off the back of Romero’s previous film, Day of the Dead (1985). Indeed, there’s less here even than in his lighter, more comedic Creepshow (1982). However, while the director was indeed renowned for pushing the envelope in terms of onscreen gruesomeness, his best films have always been about much more than just that.

This is a deliberate, slow-burning, psychological piece which culminates in a taut third act. Early on, the visuals and camerawork are so perfunctory that you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve started watching some made-for-TV film. However, visual flourishes (with the possible exception of the deliberate comic book stylisations of Creepshow) have rarely been Romero’s thing. Here, he basically steps back and allows both Jason Beghe’s wheelchair-bound acting and the impressive animal work involving Boo the capuchin monkey to run the show for the first two thirds.

Jason Beghe and Boo in Monkey Shines

Beghe delivers an elaborate yet non-showy performance which mixes disappointment, pathos, frustration, rage and malice to create a compelling portrait of a man whose physical freedoms have been suddenly taken away from him. While he doesn’t always come across as a particularly nice person, you can’t blame him for the way in which he acts when you see the challenges he faces with voice-activated room lights, his attempts to turn the pages of a book with a plastic stick and him having to endure the irritations of Nurse Maryanne’s blasted pet canary poking at his face. The way in which his impotent rage and vindictiveness manifest - as locked in a sort of mental feedback loop with Ella - is both disturbing and believable.

The film also features an unusual sex scene involving Allan and Ella’s minder, Melanie (played by Kate McNeil). While in practice it’s fairly restrained, it’s quite brave for any film to suggest that a disabled person could engage in sexual activity, and to do so without coming across as tasteless or exploitative. The scene reflects Monkey Shines as a whole in that the film doesn’t patronise or plead on behalf of its character - instead, it asserts that he is a rounded human being with the same complex set of needs as any able-bodied person would have.

When we reach the finale, the lengthy build-up pays off as the full-blown horror/thriller aspects of the story take centre stage, and Allan has to confront his metaphorical animal side which has now been made literal by an Ella who runs rampant and threatens everyone around him. There’s a lot of suffocating tension here which is effectively generated via some impressive use of tight close-ups and David Shire’s Hitchcockian score.

All in all, Monkey Shines is a fine, intelligent chiller which provides a strong case for George Romero being remembered for more than just shuffling, intestine-munching corpses.

Runtime: 113 mins

Dir: George A. Romero

Script: George A. Romero, from a novel by Michael Stewart

Starring: Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeil, Joyce Van Patten, Stanley Tucci, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Janine Turner, Boo

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

From a visual standpoint, Monkey Shines wasn’t a particularly showy title in the first place. Accordingly, this print is serviceable enough but nothing more than that. The colour grading veers a little too heavily towards the pink. The audio is generally fine but some of the dialogue is a little muted.

Extras

Travis Crawford audio commentary

Film journalist, historian and programmer Crawford spends much of his enthusiastic commentary going through the filmographies of everyone concerned, pretty much in the manner of a talking Wikipedia. However, he still reveals a few points of interest about the film itself. The concept of trained monkeys assisting quadriplegics is based on a real-life programme called Helping Hands which is credited in the film’s opening card. Monkey Shines was protested by disability groups during its cinema release, largely over its poster tagline (which suggested that the protagonist’s wheelchair was a prison) and the way in which the story concludes. Ironically, however, the sex scene (which I mention in the review of the main film) made it a popular rental title amongst disabled viewers who felt that their sexuality was underrepresented in cinema.

George A. Romero audio commentary

Stuart “Feedback” Andrews (from Rue Morgue Podcasts) interviews the late director for this enjoyable commentary. Romero chose to adapt Michael Stewart’s novel because he was interested in exploring its Jekyll and Hyde aspect - something which he would continue to do in his subsequent two films, The Dark Half and Bruiser.

The discussion is at its most interesting when they talk about working with trained monkeys. Two capuchins were used to play Ella. However, the first one (which was hired through the Helping Hands programme) refused to obey commands and was unsuitable for use in close-ups because it had its teeth extracted for safety reasons. The second one (credited as Boo) was one rejected from the programme because she became too attached to her handler. Since she was more cooperative and never underwent the tooth extraction operation, she was the one used for most of the scenes. They successfully got her to bare her teeth in anger by mentioning the name of a specific trainer whom she disliked. Although she loved actor Jason Beghe, at one point she inexplicably pulled some shit out of her anus and fed it to him. A number of scenes use prosthetic monkey hands in order to carry out actions which a real-life animal would never do, such as striking matches or holding a razor.

Romero also laments the poor business decisions on the part of Orion Pictures which ultimately led to its demise. Monkey Shines itself was a flop due what the director has dubbed “a terrible ad campaign”, as well as the fact that it was released at the same time as the Tom Cruise vehicle Cocktail. As an aside, he mentions that the company’s executives were also convinced that Dances with Wolves and Silence of the Lambs would flop on release. Hence, they decided to sell both films, bit-by-bit, to other companies. Ironically, doing so meant that they were unable to reap the financial benefits when both of them turned out to be major hits.

An Experiment in Fear: The Making of Monkey Shines

This 49-minute documentary looks features interviews with several cast and crew members - including George Romero, Tom Savini, Jason Beghe, Kate McNeil and John Pankow. A sizeable chunk of the runtime looks at the challenges of working with monkeys as well as some Tom Savini’s effects - including a robotic monkey, a monkey puppet and hand gloves which were used to hold an outsized razor near the camera. When the creature is vanquished during the climax, a shot involving it being thrown to the floor used a dead cat in disguise because the attempts to make an artificial puppet failed to look convincing.

We also get to see some insights into a deleted brain surgery scene and an alternate ending which the studio rejected after test screenings. The filmmakers had also licensed the songs of Ella Fitzgerald to be used at certain points in the film. However, the agent representing her backed out of the deal because the monkey herself was named Ella - a notion which they found insulting to the artist. In the end, the producers replaced the proposed Ella Fitzgerald tracks with songs courtesy of the similar-sounding Peggy Lee.

Deleted Scenes

There are four deleted scenes here which, while doubtless worth their removal for pacing reasons, add a little extra depth and pathos to the character of Allan Mann.

Alternate Ending

In lieu of the Carrie-style ending which we see in the released version, we get a scene (after Allan reunites with Melanie) where Geoffrey’s boss Burbage arrives back at the lab, amid protests, to continue the monkey experiments. It’s definitely a better, darker way to close the film than the one which we have been left with.

Vintage “Making of…”

A short 5-minute contemporary featurette. While there’s little of substance here in comparison to the commentaries and the more recent An Experiment in Fear documentary, it’s nice to see some footage of a younger-looking Romero.

Behind-the-Scenes footage

Most of the footage here consists of test shots, filmed by Tom Savini, of the various artificial monkey creations. Highlights include a hapless sculptor attempting to mould a puppet next to an uncooperative monkey and a member of Savini’s crew “feeding” the animatronic Ella with little bits of food.

Archival Interviews and News Feature

We get some more contemporary interview footage with George Romero, Jason Beghe, Kate McNeil and John Pankow, plus a brief vintage news feature.

Some trailers, TV spots and a collector’s booklet round out the extras.

Overall:

This overlooked George Romero film is definitely worth the rediscovery. Eureka Entertainment’s disc also contains a meaty collection of extras.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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