Despite ‘Monkey Shines’ not being the first movie you might associate with the late horror titan George A. Romero, Eureka have saw to it that it has a release worthy of the man’s legacy with a dual format HD presentation, including a tonne of extras.
‘Monkey Shines’ sees Romero skirting the boundaries between the horror and thriller genre, and rather than focussing on the shambling undead which formed the backbone of his career, this time we see his film (based on the novel of the same name by author Michael Steward) focus on the living, in a cautionary tale about our continuingly questionable stewardship of the natural world.
The film begins with a strikingly solemn opener as rising start athlete Alan is knocked down by a car and paralysed as a result. Bound to his wheelchair, his life cascades further into a spiral of depression and misfortune as his girlfriend leaves him for the same Dr who botched his operation and his over bearing mother begins to dump her self-pity and baggage onto him. Things seem ultimately hopeless until Allan is introduced to Ella, a monkey who is part of an experimental group of primates trained to help quadriplegics in household tasks. Unbeknownst to Alan and Ella’s trainer this isn’t the only experiment Ella is involved in, and the bond between man and beast turns to into a powerplay with terrifying consequences.
On paper the film sounds like its content could quickly become a confusing mess and a story which sounds about as far away from horrific as it could get, especially once you see how cute Ella the capuchin monkey is. Somehow, however unlikely Ella is as an antagonist is, the film works, and its killer.
With the screenplay sticking closely to its source material, the depth of exposition and extension of the scientific and psychological concepts explored in the story helps the plot to establish itself as both credible, and to an extent, somewhat feasible. The film doesn’t rush things along either, so the escalating development of the murderous monkey’s agenda not only adds tension to a film where the atmosphere and tone is carefully crafted to ensure audience buy in to the characters plight but enhances the monkey’s threat throughout. The acting is solid and the ensemble of a small but talented cast generate a genuine feeling of empathy for the plight of the characters. Again, I would reiterate, even though the films threat comes from a 1ft tall psychic, psychotic monkey, this film at no point feels like a joke.
Indeed, the horror elements, specifically focussed in the final 40 minutes or so, actually work so well that the films conclusion, a fraught cat-and-mouse type of power- struggle, would feel just as at home in a slasher movie as it does here. The blood and gore is minimal, although some of the special effects in the medical scenes of the film contain some rather convincing incisions. That said, the films finale is violent, and the body count rises at an alarming rate as Ella’s protective instincts override any of the creatures limited morals. I won’t ruin any of the film’s key scenes, but rest assured, the animal attacks don’t come in conventional means and it’s unbelievable how the film builds and builds to such a chaotic and murderous conclusion whilst staying true to its context and exposition.
Overall, ‘Monkey Shines’ is one of a few examples of Romero producing quality works outside of the genre he became famous for creating, and ultimately defined by. Its an out-there film, and perhaps not one which sits typically in any one genre, but it’s a quality one never the less, and one that has perhaps stood the test of time better than some of his other efforts. I am often cynical of the constant re-releasing of older films onto Blu-ray, but up to their usual standards Eureka make sure its HD version, which ultimately wasn’t available in the UK prior to this release, is a definitive one.