Movie Time with Breakfastman: Monkey Shines
Monkey Shines is a psychological thriller/horror film from George A. Romero, who you might know from his work on the "of the Dead" movies, and um... Creepshow maybe? Yeah, unfortunately, George Romero seems to have not done anything of any real note since Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. Not to say that his movies after Dawn and Night are bad (truth be told, before I watched Monkey Shines, the only Romero movie I had seen was Dawn of the Dead, which I quite liked), but when you think of George Romero, what movies do you think of? Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead. Anyway, Monkey Shines was originally a novel written by a man called Michael Stewart, and was adapted to the screen by Romero. It received a mixed response from critics and was a failure at the box office, which supposedly pushed Romero back into independent film making. It has a apparently become a bit of a cult classic over the years (of course, how could it not with a plot synopsis that basically goes: "evil monkey kills people?). I have had both good experiences with cult classic horror movies (Phantasm) and bad (The Wicker Man 1973), so I was rather wary going into this one. So, is it any good, is it as enjoyable as a monkey throwing feces at your face? This is Monkey Shines.
Whoa, Dawn of the Dead is on TV! Awesome! I love that movie!
Monkey Shines starts out with our protagonist, Alan Mann, getting out of bed in the morning to exercise. He stretches naked for a bit (ew...), then loads up his backpack with bricks, puts it on, and goes for a run. Everything seems to be going all fine and dandy, until a dog runs into his path. He moves into the road out of the way of the dog, but gets hit by a semi and goes flying through the air. When he wakes up, he finds that he is now a quadriplegic (a.k.a. he cannot move his arms or legs). When he gets home, his greeted with a party over the fact that he is alive (and still as handsome as he ever was, even if his is a bit more scruffy) after being hit by a semi. Later that night, his best friend Jeff, a scientist currently trying to increase the intelligence of monkeys by injecting them with this chemical made from dead memory cells, comes to visit him. Jeff, seeing how depressed his friend is, decides to get him a helper monkey. Unfortunately, the place that trains the monkeys has all the animals out with other people. Jeff decides to donate particularly smart monkey from the lab (who gets named Ella) for training to help his friend out.
Nope, nothing shady going on here, no siree.
Jeff life seems to be improving with Ella around. He seems much happier, his annoying, controlling mother is out of the house, he has decided to continue his law studies and seems to be doing quite well, he starts forming a bond with Ella, and he is becoming fast friends with the women who trained Ella, Melanie. Everything seems fine and dandy, which means it is time for everything to go wrong again! Hurrah! Alan starts succumbing to fits of rage, yelling at his nurse. After the nurse's pet bird almost pecks his eyes out one night, he swears that he will get rid of the bird somehow. That night, Ella escapes from her cage, breaks the birds neck, and sticks the corpse in the nurses slippers. That freaks her out, and she decides to resign. Alan's mother comes back, despite his objections to the contrary, to take care of him. Alan also finds out at this time that A: his doctor might have made a mistake during the surgery and his condition could be reversible, and B: his former girlfriend that left him because he was a quadriplegic is now banging his doctor. This makes him even more angry and bitter at the world. He has a dream later on that he is Ella, who sets fire to the bed that his doctor and his former lover are having sex on, killing. He then wakes up to find that, guess what, his doctor and former lover died in a fire. He then suspects that he gets angrier when Ella around, and he is somehow sending psychic messages to Ella, who is then carrying out his wishes. His friends tell him that idea is bullcrap, though Jeff is not so sure, remembering his experiments on the monkey. As usual, I don't want to spoil the entire story, but as you can guess, more people die, the monkey acts creepy, and things proceed pretty much how you expect.
The cutest horror villain ever. Yes, even cuter than Jason.
What is surprising about this movie is how straight everything is played. Even though having the monkey as the villain uses the old "innocent object/creature that turns evil and kills people" trope that so many other movies have take advantage of (Child's Play, the Bad Seed, The Omen, It's Alive, Rosemary's Baby, Videodrome, and Day of the Triffids, among so many others), it works and it works surprisingly well. Aside from a few unintentionally funny scenes at the end (the Carrie-esque jump scare at the end had me in stitches simply because of it's absurdity), the entire movie is really rather serious and decidedly un-campy. The monkey is sufficiently creepy and works surprisingly well as a villain, scuttling along in the shadows, killing people and generally making hellish mischief. The film also builds suspense pretty well. We get to know and even like these characters, which makes it all the more alarming and engaging when their lives are put in danger. Everything is set up well, and the movie proceeds at a nice pace. There are a few pretty good, surprising jump scares (never thought I would say those words together in the same sentence) here and there, scattered smartly throughout the movie that help build tension as well. Unlike some horror movies, I could never remember a time when I considered turning it off. I was even on the edge of my seat for a few scenes, wondering what would happen next.
So, what would you say if I gave you an evil monkey with psychic powers?
That does not mean that the writing is perfect in the movie. There are a couple parts in the movie where key characters act like idiots, or made me say "Okay, WTF are you doing? Why did you just do that and why did you think that was a good idea?". These moments came often at the end of the movie when people who were smart before started doing some very nonsensical stuff ("Um, excuse me, why are you bringing two needles full of poison to kill the monkey? Are you asking to die"). It actually feels that the writer just ran out of ideas and couldn't figure out how to end it. The movie also happens to be pretty slow in the beginning. The actual "monkey killing people" parts don't really start until in an hour+ in the movie, which didn't really effect me all that much, but might anger or bore some people. In one final complaint about the writing, some characters came off as annoying and bitchy when I doubt they were supposed to be, which makes it hard for me to care if they live or die and detracts some from the suspense or horror of the events. If I don't care if this person dies or has horrible things happen to them, how is this horrifying? I won't be scared for their lives or sanity. I won't give a crap what happens to them. Injecting annoying characters in a horror movie only detracts from the experience as a whole, and it certainly does that here.
Moving all of the monkey's stuff into the house. No, I am not kidding, that is actually what is going on here.
All the other parts of the movie hold up pretty well. The cinematography is pretty good, with some interesting shots from both the perspective of the wheelchair that the protagonist is confined too, and from the perspective of the monkey. All the actors put in a good performance, Jason Beghe (who plays the quadriplegic Alan Mann) especially. He does a really great job of portraying a quadriplegic, and you can really see the pain and sadness in his eyes when he finds out he might never be able to move his limbs again. The sets are all well chosen and look nice, and the music holds up well, even though it is not especially memorable. The special effects can also look a bit silly at times, but they do hold up well nonetheless. Also, this is the only movie I have seen where someone has sex with a quadriplegic, so there is that.
Yes, he even takes the monkey to class with him. The sad thing is, the monkey gets far better grades than him.
Monkey Shines is a competent suspense horror film. While it doesn't do anything particularly new and the writing can be questionable at times, it actually works more often than not, which is a feat in and of itself. If you feel the craving for a good suspense horror film, this is a decent choice.