Written and directed by George A. Romero and based on the novel of the same name by Michael Stewart.,1988's Monkey Shines hardly lit the box office on fire when it hit theatres that year but it has gone on to rightly earn itself a bit of a cult following. The story follows a young man named Allan (Jason Beghe) who is injured in a car accident. Not only does this send his burgeoning athletic career down the drain but it leaves him paralyzed from the neck down. Understandably, Allan is very angry about this recent turn of events, something that doesn't go unnoticed by the crotchety nurse assigned to care for him, Maryanne Hodges (Christine Forrest), his girlfriend, Linda (Janine Turner) or his overbearing mother (Joyce Van Patten).
Eventually Allan's friend, Geoffrey (John Pankow), decides to help the guy out by getting him a monkey. Not only will the monkey make for a cute pet but he'll be able to help him in ways that maybe a dog or a cat could not. The monkey is named Ella and we soon learn that she was once used as a test subject by a group of scientists and because of this has become far more intelligent than your average monkey. Things start off well enough, thanks to the efforts of trainer Melanie Parker (Kate O'Neill), and Allan likes having Ella around. In turn, she seems very responsive to his needs but as Allan's temper begins to flare like never before and those who are the targets of his anger start to turn up dead, it seems that maybe this relationship is more than just a little bit unhealthy…
At two hours in length, Monkey Shines could have used some more judicious editing but a few pacing issues here and there aside, the movie definitely has some interesting ideas at work even if they are sometimes executed more successfully than others. We know things are going to go wrong for Allan right from the beginning: it's too nice out that day when he's out for a job, it's just too perfect. We know something is up, then BLAM, his life is changed in an instant. Of course, once he's become a paraplegic that won't be enough. The story has to work in some drama in the case of his girlfriend and his surgeon and then his mother, who just can't help but smother the poor guy. She means well but it's easy to see how meaning well can quickly mutate into an overbearingness that borders on smothering the guy. All of this only serves to make his anger not so much justified but at least understandable. We get it. His life sucks and he needs to lash out at those around him. The fact that as the movie progresses this is done using the otherwise cute little monkey as the conduit for horror follows similar horror movie trappings, be it the kindly dog that turns into a killer or the child's toy that turns out to be possessed of a great evil.
Horror fans have seen these things before, but to Romero's credit where many filmmakers would use this story as a launching pad for gory set pieces and offer up a symphony of murder at the monkey's hand, here the emphasis is more on the psychological aspect of things. As Allan breaks down we get inside his head a bit thanks to the genuinely strong performance from Jason Beghe. We don't always like him but the movie is calculating enough to ensure that we do always understand him. This makes the more macabre scenes in which the murders do take place considerably more suspenseful than they would be had they just been simple gore films. As Allan's anger grows and he starts to crack, the film does grow in intensity thanks to the character development that came before it starting to pay off in interesting ways.
The movie also benefits from some really clever and effective camera work. The way in which the monkey is framed in the film can be alternately adorable and terrifying and this juxtaposition goes a long way towards making some of the movie's latter scenes work as well as they do. The movie does suffer from some pacing problems and the subplot with the girlfriend feels unresolved, so don't go into this expecting perfection, but Monkey Shines holds up really well as a solid thriller. It's about as far removed from the zombie films Romero is best known for as you can get but Monkey Shines is one of those odd little horror films that should be better regarded than it is. Hopefully this Blu-ray release will go some way towards changing that. Speaking of which…
Monkey Shines arrives on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.85.1 widescreen. The image is pretty clean and offers decent depth and detail throughout. Although there is a natural amount of film grain here, there aren't really any issues with actual print damage. Skin tones look quite good and color reproduction seems pretty accurate. This isn't a movie that pops off the screen at you in that regard, it uses a lot of subdued pallets, but this seems like a pretty natural, film like presentation. There are no issues with any obvious noise reduction to note and the image is free of any edge enhancement. There is a tiny bit of crush in some of the darker scenes but otherwise, things look quite good here even if it is occasionally a tad soft.
The audio options provided on the disc is are a DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track and a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track with optional English closed captioning provided. The 5.1 track spreads out the score and the effects pretty nicely in a few scenes but otherwise doesn't get too fancy in terms of how it remixes dialogue placement. Both tracks are properly balanced and free of any hiss or distortion. No complaints here.
Extras on this disc start off with a new audio commentary from George A. Romero moderated by Cinephobia's Stuart Andrews. He talks about how he initially came onboard to direct this project, where some of the ideas and inspiration for the movie came from, what it was like working with the different cast and crew members as well as what it was like working with an actual monkey on the film, the effects work, the score, the locations and quite a bit more. All of that adds up to making this a pretty interesting listen.
The disc also includes a new featurette entitled An Experiment In Fear: The Making Of Monkey Shines that clocks in at just over forty-nine minutes in length and is made up of new on camera interviews with Romero, cast members Jason Beghe, John Pankow and Kate McNeil, executive producer Peter Grunwald, makeup effects maestro Tom Savini, makeup effects assistants Greg Nicotero and Everett Burrell and last but not least, the film's editor Pasquale Buba. This is a thorough and well put together look back at the making of the movie with each of the interviewees sharing some interesting stories about their respective work on the picture. Be sure to watch it past the end credits.
Rounding out the extras on the disc is a vintage Behind The Scenes segment running just under a minute, a five minute vintage The Making Of Monkey Shines EPK style piece, just shy of four minutes of Vintage Interviews with two minutes of News Reports tacked on afterwards, a really interesting five minute long Alternate Ending, four minutes of Deleted Scenes, a collection of trailers and TV spots, a still gallery, animated menus and chapter selection.
Monkey Shines isn't the movie that George A. Romero will be remembered for but it sees the director taking some interesting ideas and running with them. Though it's a little on the long side for what it is, the performances are pretty strong and there are some genuinely creepy moments here. Romero fans will no doubt appreciate the comprehensive extras highlighted by the main featurette and commentary and the upgrade in quality offered by Shout! Factory's Blu-ray release. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.