Monkey Shines Review

The Film
I came to this film having never seen it and with a certain amount of trepidation. There are many people, both fans and neutrals that say that Romero has not made a decent film for 15 years. Indeed if you check IMDB or most review sites you will see that his post-“Day of the Dead” films are held in very low esteem. This of course leads to accusations that Romero has “lost it”. Whilst I agree that some of his output is weak I think Monkey Shines is almost up there with some of his best work.

The plot is a great macabre twist on the “disabled person in danger” film. Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) is an active sports-loving young man with excellent prospects who plans to become a lawyer. Unfortunately in the first five minutes of the film he is run over by a truck leaving him paralysed from the neck down. When Allan finally returns from hospital he discovers that his girlfriend has drifted away from him and his overbearing mother (Joyce Van Patten) has taken over his life to try and help him. To begin with Allan does not adapt well, his girlfriend leaves him completely (we assume) and his frustrations lead to a suicide attempt.

Fortunately he does not succeed and his best friend, Geoffrey (John Pankow), decides to act. Geoffrey is a scientist with a lab full of monkeys so he donates one to be trained to be Allan’s helper and companion. Melanie Parker (Kate O’Neill) is the trainer and she quickly grows close to Allan as she helps to train Ella to be his assistant. Ella soon becomes invaluable to Allan although others do not share his affection for the monkey. His live-in nurse (Christine Forrest) quits after her bird mysteriously dies and Allan’s mother moves in permanently to look after him. The link between and Allan and Ella grows until there is almost a telepathic connection. When he sleeps he seems to be able to see through Ella’s eyes and his anger towards certain people is so out of control that he believes that Ella is connected with it. Whilst he never commands Ella using his anger, Ella acts on it anyway and Allan’s friends soon become targets. The film takes a disturbing and decidedly macabre turn and the ending is horror at its best.

Now I realise that this story seems rather fantastical and ludicrous on the page but it works very well on screen. The tension that is built up in certain scenes is absolutely incredible with some real edge-of-the-seat moments. The film rarely goes for the out and out gore option, opting for a more subtle psychological horror edge. Romero is a past master at tension building and some of the sequences here reminded me of the scenes of Barbara on her own in the house at the beginning of Night of the Living Dead. Of course I realise that the plot itself is fairly pedestrian but the horror elements that hang off it make it worthwhile.

Unfortunately there are flaws. Firstly there are some unexplained mysteries, which niggled away at me after the film. The main one concerns Allan’s girlfriend, why did we never see them break up? She appears at the beginning of the film all lovey-dovey then appears distant when he returns from hospital. Whilst we see her later on with her new beau we never see her confront Allan and leave him, which makes us wonder why she has vanished. Secondly as with the Dark Half I felt the pacing was a little too deliberate here. The film is probably about 10-minutes longer than it needs to be to tell it’s story. However I am beginning to notice that this is a common theme with Romero’s films; they either seemed rushed or too long. All in all though my hat goes off to Romero as I’m not sure who else could have convinced me that the cute little capuchin monkey was capable of murder.

Much kudos must also be placed at the feet of BooBoo who plays Ella. This is a very smart monkey indeed and Romero’s patience when shooting must have been infinite. He gets some fantastic shots where the monkey seems to be intelligently staring people out. Ella inevitably overshadows the human members of the cast but this is no great disaster. Jason Beghe takes a good stab at playing the paralysed man, unfortunately because he cannot move he has a tendency to overact with his face, which can appear a little laughable at times. The rest of the cast are fairly accomplished with only John Pankow standing out as Allan’s curious scientist pal. There is a tendency amongst the rest to be a little wooden but this doesn’t detract too much from the film.

Finally I must give mention to best part of the film, the direction and cinematography. Romero’s visual style and direction is as good here as anything else he has ever done. Some of the shots from Ella’s POV are simply breathtaking whilst the use of the wheelchair mounted camera in the final sequence is inspired. Having recently watched the Dark Half and Two Evil Eyes it is good to see that Romero hasn’t lost his visual flair completely.

This is a much-underrated film that needs to be re-examined by many. The plot maybe a bit wacky and the film may have flaws but it is executed brilliantly and the visual flair on display is superlative. I watch a lot of horror films, so many in fact that they rarely scare me, make me tense or make me uneasy. Monkey Shines managed to put me on edge and I felt distinctly uncomfortable during certain scenes and that is the strongest praise I can give. Romero fans should already own this and those who have dismissed it in the past, give it another try.

The Disc
After eulogising about this and urging you all to watch this I now have the unfortunate task of telling you about the disc. No stops have been pulled out by MGM here. The packaging is plain and understated with some lack lustre menus revealing 32 chapters covering the 113-minute film.

Can I just say “Blech” And move on? The picture is at least anamorphic and given its correct ratio of 1.85:1 but that is all the good news you are going to get. The picture is sharp but the print is average with quite a bit of dirt and scratches present. The transfer however is fairly mediocre with very few redeeming features. The colours are rendered reasonably well with a decent black level, however shadow detail is lacking in some of the darker scenes and others suffer from blooming of bright light sources (Although this may be the director’s intent). However the main flaw here is artefacting. Any sort of patterned background suffers from a shifting moire effect that is distracting in a few scenes. This isn’t as bad as some of the blocky artefacts in Zulu R1 or the Unforgiven original release but it is still annoying. Overall this is better than VHS and it is certainly watchable but I dread to think what it would look like on a screen bigger than 32”.

I should also point out that this is a double-sided disc with the 4:3 version on the other side. I watched a bit of this and the picture seemed to be of similar quality although the composition is of course dreadful in 4:3, why people watch these butchered versions is beyond me, however it is there is you insist on watching it.

The main soundtrack is a DD2.0 surround track. This is a fairly decent track with all the dialogue being clear with no hiss or crackles. The volume level seems a little variable however with certain music cues being a little too loud for my taste compared to the rest of the track. The channel separation is fairly weak however with very little activity apart from a few set pieces (The bird flying around springs to mind). Overall this track provides all the jumps that should be there and lets you hear the dialogue, which is more than can be said for a lot of films…

Well Anchor Bay didn’t produce this disc so how many extras do you think there are? The answer is of course none except for a trailer. This is a pretty decent trailer though and as I am no fan of trailers this is praise indeed. There are very few spoilers and the trailer seems to portray the film accurately, which is fairly unusual. Unfortunately the voice over man is as OTT as usual.

As I have already stated the film is much overlooked and deserves a wider audience. Unfortunately this disc is not going to persuade many people to rewatch the film. The picture is below average and whilst the soundtrack is solid there are no real extras available. Unless you want to wait around and see if Anchor Bay get hold of this (unlikely) then you have no choice. The good news is that this disc is available in R1 for around £10 from most places.

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