Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: George A. Romero
Written by: George A. Romero
(based on the novel MONKEY SHINES by Michael Stewart)
Starring: Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeill, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci & Janine Turner
George A. Romero had become a master of horror purely through low-budget independent efforts, but he eventually wanted to make his way into the studio system. His first foray into this unfamiliar territory was 1988’s MONKEY SHINES. Based on Michael Stewart’s novel of the same name, MONKEY SHINES is a killer animal movie that doesn’t follow the typical tropes of a killer animal movie. This film features an adorable little monkey, focuses on the human drama of the characters, and milks surprisingly competent suspense out of its ridiculous premise. The film also has a silly camp factor to it, which greatly benefits the overall entertainment value.
College athlete Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) has a bright future ahead of him, until it all comes crashing down with a car accident. Paralyzed from the neck down, Allan is unable to do much of anything and his will to live is fading. Things begin looking up once Allan is introduced to super smart service monkey Ella. With a new furry friend by his side, Allan discovers love with specialist Melanie (Kate McNeil) and also develops some anger issues. Soon enough, strange deaths befall folks who piss Allan off. This mysterious wave of violence couldn’t have anything to do with Ella…or recent unexplainable dreams that Allan has been having, right? This is a horror movie, so you probably already know the answer to that question.
For a movie about an adorable killer monkey, MONKEY SHINES actually manages to evoke real suspense from its ludicrous plot. The clear reason for this comes from Allan being quadriplegic and Ella being a super smart monkey that can severely mess with him. There are moments where Allan is completely helpless and forced to watch as Ella terrorizes his friends. Part of the reason why Allan’s disability works as a strong plot device and doesn’t feel like a cheap exploitative gimmick is because Romero actually takes the time to develop Allan as a full-fledged character. This means the film’s first act is relatively slow, but the plot is compelling enough to engage the viewer’s interest.
Once the killer animal mayhem and scares get going, MONKEY SHINES has two modes: creepy and goofy. Surprisingly, it works on both of these contrasting tones. I found myself hooked to the screen during some of the quieter moments, including a final third that features a murderous Ella running amok and Allan struggling to keep his ever-dwindling amount of friends alive. I also busted out laughing during certain scenes purely because of how silly, but thoroughly enjoyable they were to watch. Name one other movie that has an adorable monkey electrocuting an old lady in a bathtub? What about another horror flick that has nightmare sequence that climaxes in a monkey version of the ALIEN chestburster moment? You likely can’t and that shows just how damned unique, silly, and fun MONKEY SHINES really is.
As for the performances, the monkey (or monkeys?) playing Ella steal the show as this is some of the most impressive animal acting you’re likely to ever see in a horror film. Ella is adorable in some moments, funny in other scenes, and also maintains the sense of menace as she constantly kills (and attempts to kill) characters. Jason Beghe is convincing and sympathetic as protagonist Allan, while Kate McNeill is solid as his love-interest. Joyce Van Patten is positively hateable as Allan’s overly controlling mother and John Pankow is fun as Allan’s mad scientist best friend. The cast also has an underused Stanley Tucci as a scumbag surgeon and Stephen Root (in his first acting role) as a rival scientist.
MONKEY SHINES has equal amounts of laugh-out-loud moments (some of which are downright unintentional), killer animal hijinks, and genuine suspense. George A. Romero may not have had a great experience while making this movie and the studio was ultimately disappointed by its low box office performance, but MONKEY SHINES is a blast. The script takes the time to flesh out its story and develop characters, has a tense final third, and maintains a fun tone throughout. Overall, MONKEY SHINES is a really strange, but very fun overlooked horror gem from the 80s.