Dir. George Romero
Starring Jason Beghe, Joyce Van Patten, John Pankow, Stanley Tucci, Stephen Root, Frank Welker
Continuing our “Not of the Living Dead” expedition into George Romero’s less shambling/lurching/intestines-eating cinematic exploits, we find ourselves at MONKEY SHINES, which wikipedia says is “sometimes” subtitled “AN EXPERIMENT IN FEAR,” but obviously should be all the time and will be every time I speak of it and anytime anyone wishes to speak of it to me without fear or immediate and severe recrimination. If it is indeed an experiment in fear, I would say that if our hypothesis was that the film would inspire fear, the hypothesis was not supported by the evidence gathered. The problem is, the experiment is invalid anyway, because it’s impossible to repeat and hence has no predictive power. But it’s an interesting experiment to watch, because it represents a turning point in young George Romero’s career and it involves monkeys.
Romero is now a venerable well-respected grayhair, fighting a never-ending battle with Martin Scorsese over who can successfully wear the thickest possible eyeglasses without falling over. But there was a time when he was a young indie upstart. In fact, he spent the first two decades of his career, since his 1968 debut, making cheapie independent films including the classic trilogy of NIGHT, DAWN, and DAY (he never got around to TEATIME OF THE DEAD). So when a guy finally gets his big studio break after 9 films and 20 years, it’s kind of a big deal.
He responded with MONKEY SHINES, an odd film by any metric you want to use. For one thing, it’s odd to see a Romero film that looks this good. They obviously spared no expense in pursuing the vision of this already-legendary director they’d hired, providing decent actors, decent lighting, nice camera equipment, a few location shots, real monkeys, the whole deal. You can practically smell the catered buffet. But it’s funny, because other than maybe buying the rights to the novel this is based on* there’s not really any reason Romero couldn’t have made this as an independent film. It’s mostly one location, no big actors, few special effects. I would say that Romero builds the film like a guy who isn’t used to having a decent budget at his disposal, but come to think of it that never seemed to stop him in the past. The big biker attack in DAWN looks like it cost as much as this whole film just by itself. So for whatever reason, his big studio debut is a small-scale affair, inward focused and claustrophobic rather than extroverted and explosive. Maybe the monkey had a really great agent and walked away with half the budget, who knows?
Anyway, the result here is that we have a kind of reverse REAR WINDOW. Which I guess would be FRONT WINDOW, or maybe FRONT WALL. Alan (Jason Beghe) is a star athlete and law student who becomes a quadriplegic after a freak car accident. Increasingly embittered and isolated, he gets a second chance at life when his Herbert West-esque best friend Geoff gives him a helper monkey named Ella who (unbeknownst to anyone else) is also a subject in an intelligence-building experiment. Ella and Alan bond immediately, and everything seems fine until suddenly Alan’s enemies begin turning up dead. Is it a coincidence, or is Ella somehow acting out Alan’s subconscious anger? Here's a hint. The movie is called MONKEY SHINES.
So, in contrast to REAR WINDOW’s voyeuristic interest in whether someone else is a murderer, Alan is even more disabled and has to solve the mystery of whether he is somehow complicit in murder. Even though he doesn’t know how he’s directly responsible, Alan is wracked with guilt that his unspoken anger is being acted out -- commendably, given that the people getting snuffed are inarguably a bunch of irredeemable assholes and at least one is played my Stanley Tucci. This strikes me as especially interesting given its odd thematic similarity to my last Romero film, THE DARK HALF. That one is about a man who finds his fictional alter ego has come to life and if lashing out at people he loves. Here, our protagonist finds himself in the awkward position of feeling guilty over the death of people he hates. In both cases, we have heroes who find themselves responsible for darker aspects of themselves which they never actually acted on. Both have darker qualities --which are not necessarily unusual or unjustified-- and find that for reason beyond their control, outside forces are acting based on these qualities. I mean, Alan has perfectly good reasons to be angry, particularly at the people who end up getting killed (the doctor who botched his surgery and crippled him ends up running off with his bitch fiance. I’d argue that’s about as good a reason to be grumpy as has ever existed). But both movies have a deep horror of the parts of ourselves we are least proud of somehow manifesting their desires against our will.
A quick bit of biographical research on Romero finds nothing in his history which would seem relevant to this odd bit of metaphysical paranoia. By all accounts, he seems like a nice guy. For fucks sake, it was a bit of film he did for MR. RODGERS that inspired him to go into indie filmmaking.** But then again, Alan and Thad Beaumont (from THE DARK HALF) seem pretty nice, too. So do I, I hope. Maybe that’s what makes it so scary. We’re all people who try as hard as possible to do the right thing, to ignore the devil (or monkey) on our shoulder, but in acknowledging that we’re trying to do the right thing we have to admit that there’s some small aspect of ourselves that might choose the wrong thing if not properly controlled. The price of controlling our darker impulses is that we’re always living in fear that they might, somehow, slip past our defenses and out into the real world. And I imagine most human beings know the horror of losing control and giving in to our demons at one time or another. Neither DARK HALF nor MONKEY SHINES has a lot of explicitly scary scenes, but they both understand how fundamentally terrifying it would be to watch helplessly as you completely lose control of that part of yourself and find it acting against your wishes. And the inherent fear that it’s more of you than you’d like to admit.
MONKEY SHINES ups the ante a bit by making Alan’s murderous avatar more than just a murderous evil twin, like DARK HALF does. In this case, the killer is Alan’s helper monkey Ella, played to the adorable hilt by renowned monkey actor Boo***. Ella is shown to be highly intelligent and loyal, and in fact is a godsend for poor paralyzed Alan, who bonds with her immediately. But as they start to ‘shine’ with each other**** she begins to bring out the less inhibited, more reactionary animal side of Alan. It’s hard to argue that she’s exactly a villain, though; she’s intelligent enough to kill, but it never seems like she has a human understanding of right and wrong, good and evil. So really, the fact that she becomes a killer is more the fault of humans who are acting on her -- through Alan’s monkey mind-meld and Geoff’s crazy experiments on her brain. Monkeys can’t be expected to rise above their animal nature, but humans are (perhaps unfairly and even unrealistically) supposed to exercise control, even of their very thoughts. The fact that Alan doesn’t do so dooms poor Ella as well, an innocent victim of her own genes. Just one more thing to feel guilty about.
MONKEY SHINES isn’t much of a horror movie on the surface (even once the monkey goes apeshit, it’s not too terrifying because it’s a damn monkey) but as a really bleak drama it works pretty well. Again, a big part of that comes from Romero’s steadfast determination to make a very literal, non-subjective film. He simply shows us what is happening, and lets the underlying horror of losing control carry it. As ridiculous as the premise is, Romero’s lack of stylistic trappings and the committed performance of the actors means it never feels like a joke. In particular, watching Alan’s simmering frustration at his newfound helplessness (both as a physically and mentally functional adult) works brilliantly to help you feel his plight in a way which never has to go for DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY-esque filmatic gimmicks. (And of course, if you feel his frustration and anger too, it makes you a little more complicit in the carnage that eventually comes from it.) There’s something about the straightforward approach that Romero uses which completely defuses heckling, and even the rare sex scene between a woman and a quadriplegic feels genuine. The monkey rampage at the end may not exactly be the stuff of nightmares, but it does feel convincingly desperate, and you care enough about the characters that you at least don’t want them to be taken down by a vengeance-minded monkey helper.
So, another interesting entry into the “Not of the Living Dead” cannon, which plays with a surprising amount of the same themes. We’ll look at a further elaboration on one man’s ability to control his darker impulses next in BRUISER, where we’ll find out what happens when you become your own evil avatar. For one thing, someone is definitely going to be shot with a laser while hanging suspended from a sex harness at a huge costumed rave while the Misfits perform. Which is something MONKEY SHINES ought to have had too, now that I think about it. They at least needed to get some mileage out of the creepy cymbal-crashing monkey on the poster (who isn’t in the movie, unfortunately; we’d have to wait until TOY STORY 3 before someone really milked some evil out of that little bastard). As an experiment in fear, this one leaves some unanswered questions.
*NOT by Stephen King, amazingly. Sure structured like one of his. Or maybe its just his evil twin pen name?
**Says wikipedia. But even if that’s bullshit, it’s so great that I’m going to repeat it to everyone I know until it becomes true.
***Again, not written by Stephen King.
****Ella is also voiced by Frank Welker, aka Megatron, Nibbler, and every cartoon animal not voiced by Don Messick.