A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #3: “Monkey Shines” (1988)

by A.J. Hakari


How is it that the most straight-faced movie George Romero ever made includes a razor-wielding psychic monkey with a Fatal Attraction complex? Don’t get me wrong, I love George; he’s the best surrogate grandpa a horror fan could ask for, the kind of guy who’d make the very movies he’d sneak you into against your parents’ wishes. But Romero’s work gets a little dicey outside of his zombie flicks (and even those hit their stride ages ago), as the very different but very dull Monkey Shines goes to show you.

A fateful accident during a morning jog took away everything Alan Mann (Jason Beghe) had going for him. One wrong turn in front of a truck left him paralyzed, putting his days as a rising law student on hold and scaring away a girlfriend (Janine Turner) unprepared to care for a quadriplegic. But just when all seems lost, in comes Ella, a capuchin monkey trained to help out Alan with his everyday business. A bond quickly forms between them, though Alan is unaware of the little furball’s real past. Ella is actually the product of an experiment to inject monkeys with liquefied human brains (because, y’know, science), and such fiddling has made her not only super-smart but willing to harm anyone who comes between her and her new charge.

Monkey Shines brings to life, with the utmost seriousness, a laundry list of the kookiest shit you’ve ever seen in a movie that had nothing to do with David Lynch. We see man and primate developing a telepathic connection, Ella threaten to set her own trainer on fire, and what’s probably one of the few quadriplegic sex scenes ever captured on film. All of this, plus the title itself, makes Monkey Shines feel like a lost Grindhouse spin-off, but there’s nary a moment here that cracks a smile. Yep, while Ella’s off playing arsonist and electrocuting old ladies in bathtubs, the romantic, Bernard Herrmann-esque score swells, and Alan wails at his hairy young pal’s betrayal. Not that Romero never recognizes how bizarre the premise is, but treating so much of the story like high drama makes the moments where we should be frozen in fear and the more tender sequences fall equally flat.

I got a lot of flack for defending the Dark Water remake from those who thought it was dumb for trying to make H2O scary (which wasn’t the point, but that’s another rant). But for the life of me, Monkey Shines just can’t make knee-high simians very threatening, no matter how many sharp objects and blunt instruments are supplied. I appreciate Romero for taking on a great challenge, but the grandmaster of zombie cinema doesn’t turn up that many chills in this trip down the evolutionary chart.