By ALEX DELLER
Starring Jason Beghe, Kate McNeil and John Pankow
Written and directed by George A. Romero
MONKEY SHINES (1988) was George A. Romero’s first go-around with a major studio and, as has been well documented, the experience wasn’t exactly a happy one. Still, if the shit-slinging paw prints of exec interference are plain to see then so is Romero’s skill as a film-maker, and this reissue should help elevate the movie beyond its current footnote status.
The film follows Allan Mann (Jason Beghe), a promising athlete, proponent of naked calisthenics and all-round dreamboat who’s paralysed following a freak accident. Left to his clucky mother and the world’s sourest home help while his fickle girlfriend shacks up with his skeezy doctor it’s no wonder that Allan tumbles into a pit of suicidal despair and simmering resentment. Thankfully, though, his scientist pal Geoffrey (a sweary, beer-swilling, chain-smoking John Pankow) is on hand with a bright idea: to partner Allan with a helper monkey so that he might live a fuller and more independent life. There’s a catch, of course, and this is that good ol’ Geoff has been secretly injecting pugnacious capuchin Ella (a.k.a. Boo, who puts in a career-best performance) with human brains. Needless to say things swiftly go sideways, with the genetically-enhanced Ella psychically tuning into Allan’s darkest thoughts and becoming increasingly murderous.
In many regards the movie lives up to its brazen B-movie premise, boasting forgettable sets, a toothache-inducing score and frequent breezeblock-in-a-tumble-dryer plot clunks. This said, though, Allan’s turbulent mental health and his day-to-day frustrations are dealt with tactfully, while his burgeoning relationship with animal wrangler Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil, THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW) is also sensitively handled.
What’s most surprising, perhaps, is the under-utilisation of FX maestro Tom Savini – gore and juicy kills are thin on the ground, and anyone who’s read Michael Stewart’s source novel will be surprised that Savini didn’t go balls-out with the book’s grisly, PETA-baiting denouement. Instead the horrors are more inward-focused, owing less to PATRICK or PSYCHIC KILLER than MISERY and REAR WINDOW, even if the bio-horror theme might, at a stretch, suggest THE CRAZIES writ small. While it might be a mixed bag of nuts the pluses definitely outweigh the banana skins, and if the opportunity to reappraise a little-seen, mid-career Romero offering isn’t enough of a draw then at least consider the joy of witnessing Oscar-winner-in-waiting Stanley Tucci out-acted by a chattering primate, cinema’s most sinister budgerigar and the finest monkey-with-a-knife sequence this side of PHENOMENA.