The modern incarnation of the zombie was practically invented by George A. Romero. Even with the added speed and agility of the remake-era zombies, the blueprint of Romero’s mindless undead brain-eater is still readily apparent. Because of all of his influential work within the zombie subgenre, it’s easy to forget that he made non-zombie movies as well, and great ones at that, movies like Martin and The Dark Half. One of Romero’s greatest non-zombie movies is also one of his best overall films, the animal horror movie Monkey Shines.
Monkey Shines is about a law student named Allan Mann (Jason Beghe from One Missed Call) who is hit by a car while out jogging one day. A surgeon named Dr. Wiseman (Stanley Tucci from The Hunger Games) is able to save his life, but Allan is paralyzed from the neck down. Because of his injury, Allan drops out of law school and gets dumped by his girlfriend, Linda (Janine Turner from “Northern Exposure”), sending him into a suicidal depression. Allan’s best friend, Geoffrey Fisher (John Pankow from “Mad About You”), who happens to be an animal researcher who has been experimenting with injecting an intelligence enhancement serum into monkeys, hands over one of his super-smart simians to a woman named Melanie Parker (The House on Sorority Row’s Kate McNeil), an animal trainer who specializes in readying helper monkeys for quadriplegics. The monkey, named Ella, is given to Allan, and his attitude improves immediately. Ella seems to develop a psychic link with Allan, and when those who cause him stress and pain start dying off in mysterious ways, Geoff and Mel realize that Ella is more than just a helper…she’s become a lethal protector.
As much as Monkey Shines feels like a Stephen King story, the writer had nothing to do with the film. George Romero had worked with King on Creepshow, and the two remained friends and would work together again on The Dark Half, but King did not write Monkey Shines. The screenplay for the film was adapted by Romero himself from a novel by Michael Stewart (Favorite Son). The story definitely has a King vibe, however, successfully combining the isolation and helplessness of Misery with the raw savagery of Cujo. Creepily, the movie also foretells an incident from King’s real life, as the writer was seriously injured when he was hit by a van in an accident not unlike that which paralyzed Allan Mann. Anyhow, it would seem that Romero is attracted to a good horror story, written by Stephen King or not, and a good horror story is exactly what Monkey Shines is.
After decades of doing things his own way in the independent film world, Monkey Shines was George Romero’s first foray into big studio filmmaking. Orion Pictures footed the bill for Monkey Shines, and with that money came all of the strings and catches that usually accompany studio funding. Romero’s original shooting script was substantially longer and more gruesome than what ended up onscreen. Orion Pictures meddled with the final cut, trimming the overall length of the film, then fiddled with the ending, changing Romero’s ambiguous statement into a more traditional horror movie conclusion. Although Monkey Shines is a fantastic movie as it is, one can only wonder what was left on the cutting room floor.
The big star of Monkey Shines is, of course, Ella the monkey. Ella is played by an actual trained monkey named Boo and “voiced” by animal vocal effects artist Frank Welker, who has been the voice of just about every cartoon animal ever, from Scooby Doo and Garfield to Santa’s Little Helper on “The Simpsons” and Azrael the cat on “The Smurfs.” The little rascal is quite a scene stealer; Boo brings a versatility to his performance that many human actors probably wish that they could achieve. Boo goes from cute and cuddly to fierce and horrifying, sometimes within a span of seconds. Although a “stunt double” (a stuffed monkey) is brought in for some of the more dangerous scenes, the fact that an actual monkey is used instead of puppets, animatronics, or, worst of all, CGI is highly appreciated. The fact that Ella is portrayed by a real life monkey is one of the coolest things about Monkey Shines.
Monkey Shines was shot by cinematographer James A. Contner (Jaws 3-D, Nighthawks) who, in many ways, makes it look like a typical comic book-esque Romero film, with lots of two-dimensional flat shots combined with a shallow depth of field. There are points in the film, however, where Contner and Romero get creative with the imagery. Frequently, Contner will place his camera at “monkey level,” showing the viewer things that might otherwise be missed from a higher vantage point. Additionally, during the scenes where Allan and Ella are psychically connecting, Contner uses a monkey-eye point-of-view shot, clouding the edges of the frame to simulate the vision of an animal, in order to illustrate the mischief into which Ella is getting. James A. Contner’s photography combines the traditional with the inventive, providing Monkey Shines with a look that is all its own.
One surprisingly effective aspect of Monkey Shines the music, and not just the cinematic score; there are several songs of Peggy Lee peppered throughout the movie that help to tell the story. The most obvious one of Lee’s songs that is used is “That’s All,” a love song that is played when Ella seems to be getting attached to Allan, and then used again with an ironic meaning during the climactic scene. It doesn’t stop there, however; during select scenes, Romero will drop the needle on songs like “Ain’t We Got Fun,” “The Glory of Love,” and “There’ll Be Another Spring,” songs that lend an interesting innocence to the relationship between Allan and Ella. The use of a single iconic artist’s music lends a sense of universality to the soundtrack of the film, and Peggy Lee’s soft and sultry music ends up being a perfect fit.
George A. Romero would return to making zombie movies in the early 2000s with three more Living Dead movies, but he did it more out of desire than necessity. Monkey Shines is proof that the Godfather of the Dead can make horrifying movies about the living as well.