Monkey Shines (1988) was my first Romero movie. I took my high school girlfriend to a Friday night showing at the King Theatre, our local two-screener. I remember liking it, although I’m hazy on the details. Mostly because of all the necking.
I didn’t know who Romero was, but even I did, it wouldn’t have mattered. I had better ways to spend ninety minutes in the dark. Why do you think I went to so many movies? My girlfriend and I missed the entire second act of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). U2: Rattle and Hum (1988)? We went to it twice and didn’t see a third of it. We did watch Pet Sematary (1989), the first time anyway. It later became our go-to excuse for why we needed to be in the spare room with the bed. “Oh, we’re watching Pet Sematary, Mom.” Her parents had it on Betamax. They’d banished their Betamax player to the spare room after giving in to VHS, so you might say that I became a fan of the format.
The only time I’d see a movie all the way through that wasn’t Pet Sematary or A Fish Called Wanda (1988) was when I was on the first date with a girl. There’d be a little hand-holding, maybe some seatback arm maneuvers, but the face sucking would wait until after the show. That’s how it went with Pumpkinhead (1988). But by the second date, all that was behind us. I’d go in hot and take the infield triple. We’d do everything imaginable with each other’s genitals except actual technical vaginal intercourse, to stay one step ahead of parental authority, and because you could do all of it, or most of it, in the theater. Subsequently, every horror movie that I took a girl to—The Fly II (1989), Leviathan (1989), The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)—is a blur from the fever swamp of adolescent hormones. Which isn’t the wrong way to watch many of them. But this is Romero, and you ought to pay attention, even if your attention isn’t always rewarded.
When I say Romero, I mean George A. Romero, the co-writer/director of Night of the Living Dead (1968), which is nothing short of a revolutionary movie, and the writer/director of the greatest zombie movie ever made, the immaculate, inviolate Dawn of the Dead (1978). He returned to zombies once in the eighties—or twice (or three times) if you count the dead things in Creepshow (1982)—and at least three times more over the course of the aughts. But in between he tried his hand at different kinds of horror movies. Monkey Shines is one of these, after Day of the Dead (1985) but before Two Evil Eyes (1990). Some of his films are more deep-cut than others, yet he’s an important director, so they’re all worth a look.
But once is enough for Monkey Shines, and I hadn’t intended to see it again, until the idea was floated by Sara and Jon, two of my movie-watching pals. The Alamo Drafthouse theater in Brooklyn had booked it as part of their Terror Tuesday series, where they roll a cult horror film every Tuesday night. Terror Tuesdays are fun, and it was Romero. That kind of decision decides itself. But on the day of, Jon couldn’t make it, and then, at the last minute, neither could Sara. She had messaged to tell me, but I was already gone, and I wouldn’t get her text until the following morning. If only Slack made an app for my phone.1
So while I contributed to the postmodern project of waiting for someone who wasn’t coming, I pulled up a stool in the House of Wax, the bar adjacent to and run by the Alamo. An alright place if you like death masks. Although the entire premises, including the bar, is on the top floor of a shopping mall, which itself is in the middle of Downtown Brooklyn, so there’s plenty of surreal to go around. I noticed at one of the tables in the back a woman rocking the Louise Robey look and the nineties version of eighties big hair. The best that I could tell, she was drinking alone, and I had Jon’s ticket that I could have given her. But knowing my history with Monkey Shines, I thought it would be nice to see the movie for once. Besides, I was still expecting Sara.
All that waiting for her Samuel Beckett-style helped me to work up an appetite, but I didn’t order any snacks until I got to the screening room. The Alamo is one of that new breed of movie house that offers seat-side food service during the show. The options go way beyond popcorn and candy. I ordered the fried pickles with buttermilk ranch and their bottomless cola—Coke, I think. The kitchen was running slow that night, so the pickles didn’t come until the middle of the movie, but the monkey hadn’t murdered anyone important yet anyway.
There is a monkey in Monkey Shines, and the monkey does murder people by proxy, much like the cat does in The Black Cat (1981), but there’s no evil mastermind behind these crimes. There’s just athlete-turned-law-student Allan Mann (Jason Beghe), who gets hit by a truck in a jogging accident and winds up in a wheelchair. He’s paralyzed from the neck down. Between his overbearing mother (Joyce Van Patten) and resentful live-in nurse Maryanne (Christine Forrest), and because Maggie from Northern Exposure is dumping him, he decides that his life is no longer worth living, until his best buddy Geoffrey (John Pankow), a literal mad scientist—an actual, for-real, on-the-payroll mad scientist—sets him up with Ella (Boo), a capuchin monkey from his experiments. She’s been on a steady diet of human brain-sample serum in an effort to increase her intelligence, but Geoffrey smuggles her out of his lab and gives her to animal behaviorist Melanie (Kate McNeil), who trains her as a helper monkey. Geoffrey is betting that the change in environment is just what she needs to kick-start her IQ.
The mad-scientist juice does more than make her smarter. It also opens up her psychic potential, which she uses to forge a link with Allan. Sometimes he sees through her eyes while he’s dreaming, like Bran with the direwolf in Game of Thrones. Sometimes he flies into primal rages or sulks and stews in pitch-black moods. He grows monkey teeth when nobody’s looking. He plots the murders of those who have wronged him. And Ella, clearly approving, obliges. There’s some subtle acting and thoughtful writing along the way. There’s also poor acting and substandard writing, but the good outweighs the bad in the fullness of the running time.
Romero likes to make horror movies as if he were a union organizer, with blue-collar rabble-rousers as working-class heroes and fat-cat villains for pointing the finger at. There are a few nods to that sort of thing here, a reference or two to animal experimentation, but nothing approaching a full-throated screed. That doesn’t stop every one his characters—doctors, scientists, salaried professionals—from talking like twenty-year assembly-line veterans after one too many at the fraternal lodge. It makes me wish that the workers of the world would unite, just so they could hear what each other sounds like. The only real fascist in the movie is Ella, with her preoccupation with cleanliness and order and her rigid schedules and hierarchies. She even gets some fascist imagery when she leaps across a yawning sky just as a fork of lightning stabs out, like Frank Miller’s Batman from The Dark Knight Returns.2
But I’m less concerned about her politics than I am about what she’s doing in this movie. For one thing, we see too much of her, and too much of it plays like B. J. and the Bandit. She’s clever; she’s cute. She has pet personality. That’s great if this were an organ-grinder act. But somebody needs to remind Romero that the monkey is supposed to be his monster. She has to turn around and murder people. A single montage of her being helpful around the house would be more than enough to sell the idea that she excels at being exploited. If we need to spend time with her otherwise, why can’t it be when she’s playing with matches or deliberately subjecting the nurse to torment, and not for the laughs but with the intent to do harm? Something to justify the nurse’s exasperation when she refers to Ella as Allan’s “little demon,” which is precisely what Ella is, by the way. Monkey Shines is a possession movie.
Or at least it wants to be. It seems to have the right idea, to build to a final confrontation between the exorcist/exterminators and the demon monkey. But then Geoffrey doses himself with his serum. He says that he wants to “make contact,” but why? Didn’t he watch The Exorcist (1973)? Everyone knows since Father Merrin that the last thing you do is talk it out with the devil. And what story problem is he trying to solve? Does Ella need a psychic boost? Is she piggybacking off his intelligence? Is that the only way that she can get out of her cage? Somebody help me. I didn’t read the novel.
Then Allan’s Ella-fueled bipolar mood swings kick in so fast and swing so wildly that the camera doesn’t even bother to cut. First he’s mainlining their shared monkey soul and laying down the verbal abuse on his caregivers as if he’d bought his insults on special. Next he’s conveniently regaining his senses to narrate the scene for the sake of the audience, since Boo can’t convey her motivations, seeing as how she’s a monkey, not an actor. It’s debatable that she understands what a narrative is. Add to this the mounting tedium of Allan muttering nonstop at her “character” like Bruce Campbell outtakes from Evil Dead II (1987) and desperately trying to reason with her as if she were a human toddler. Because you can listen to only so much of that before you’re ready to strangle someone.
Yet something is at work in this part of the movie that goes beyond the suspect filmmaking. These are the scenes that I vividly remember from more than half of my life ago, when I couldn’t tell you anything else about what was going on that night, what my girlfriend was wearing, what we discussed, whether we stopped off at Friendly’s later or went directly to our favorite spot to park. I don’t even know what month it was. So you criticize Romero at your peril, I guess.
Maybe it’s the image of a monkey with a straight razor. The monkey was once a symbol of the devil, and, in many ways, it continues to be. The connotation is all over the dictionary. Monkey business, monkey wrench. The word ape as a verb, “to imitate, to mock.” Monkeyshine, even, meaning “mischief” or “trick.” The monkey subverts our human nature. It’s the entire premise of Planet of the Apes (1968). So the idea of a little imp running around as some wheelchair dude’s familiar spirit, as the manifestation of his bitterness and resentment after taking a hit like paraplegia, taps into a much older notion. The movie comes out and calls it sin. And just like sin, if you go by Aquinas, the devil doesn’t want to give up his hold. Ella tries to separate Allan from the people and things that would weaken her influence. This is deeper theology than you get in The Exorcist. I’m just not sure that Romero is aware of it.
It’s something to take home with you anyway. And there’s at least one excellent scare, one completely worthy of the director. You won’t be expecting it. And it does involve the monkey.
1. They do.
2. Ella isn’t even the first Nazi primate. There’s one in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). And the orangutan in Every Which Way but Loose (1978) is a known associate of Clint Eastwood.