Directed by: George A. Romero
There have been several thought provoking films that look at the struggles of somebody living with a disability. From touching coming of age films like ‘Inside I’m Dancing’, to Daniel Day Lewis’ Academy Award winning portrayal of Christy Brown in ‘My Left Foot’. There’s even been quirky films like ‘The Sessions’ where a poet who is disabled from the neck down hires a sex surrogate. Well, ‘Monkey Shines’ has a quadriplegic sex scene; it also features a demented monkey.
Allan is a promising collegiate athlete; we’re treated to an opening scene which shows him stretching his hammy’s in the buff. He has the perfect eighties body, with Patrick Bateman-esque abs and Carl Lewis’ thighs. Allan (played by Jason Beghe) straps on a rucksack full of bricks and heads out jogging. An excitable dog leaps into his path and he swerves, taking a step out into the road where he gets side-swiped by a vehicle. Allan’s whole life changes as he is confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down.
The first quarter of the film plays like a TV drama. Allan struggles to accept the cruel hand he has been dealt, and thinking he has nothing to live for he tries to suffocate himself. His failed suicide attempt and increasingly wild facial hair are of great concern to his Mother and scientist buddy Geoff. Thinking outside the box, the unreliable, alcoholic scientist calls upon Melanie, a fellow pioneering scientist who trains monkeys in order that they can help disabled people. Geoff donates one of the monkeys from his lab named Ella to Melanie.
Melanie trains Ella to help Allan, and the cute little chimp soon forms a bond with him, an intimate bond which ends in them somehow becoming telepathically linked. There is an explanation for this, something to do with Geoff injecting brain cells into Ella when she at the lab. The monkey goes from domesticated to demonic and begins destroying the lives of those closest to Allan. This multi-talented chimp wields a cut throat razor and commits arson.
Destined to be a cult classic ‘Monkey Shines’ is a bizarre story that belongs in ‘The Twilight Zone’, it is completely unlike your typical George Romero film, with plodding melodrama amongst moments of genuinely gripping terror. Jason Beghe’s performance is wildly erratic, veering from sincerity to sheer lunacy. Allan is a moody son of a gun and his anger extends to putting on ‘that voice’. It’s of some credit to Beghe’s acting skills that he is able to make a budgie attack seem terrifying.
Romero has channelled Hitchcock, showing the different levels of terror that face a man who is physically helpless; you can see an obvious nod towards ‘Rear Window’ as Allan is imprisoned in his own home, at the mercy of a mad monkey. There are other movie tropes, the well-worn horror of a science experiment gone wrong, and the spectre of jealousy, on par to Glenn Close’s bunny boiler rage as Ella strangles a budgie and takes out Allan’s loved ones in the hope that man and chimpette can live happily ever after. The ending is outrageous on so many levels, from Ella’s eventual demise, to a nightmare sequence akin to the dinner chest bursting dinner scene from ‘Alien’.