Cult Movie: Monkey Shines a rare miss for chiller master George A Romero
THE great George A Romero and the world of independent cinema were made for each other.
It's hard to imagine little home grown products like the director's zombie game changer Night Of The Living Dead (1968) making it through the Hollywood studio system without being hacked to within an inch of its life.
The fact is all his finest work, from his still fresh social satires like Day Of the Dead (1979) to less appreciated modern vampire fables like Martin (1976), benefited enormously from being made as indie productions. They are Romero's twisted vision and Romero's alone and all remain untainted by the evil hand of studio focus groups or management interference.
When that studio system did seek to claim a little of Romero's cult credibility for itself and the director partnered up with Orion pictures in 1988 the result was a badly compromised mess of a movie that stinks of studio meddling.
Monkey Shines: An Experiment In Fear is a deeply odd and disjointed film that sticks out like a sore and rather bloody thumb in Romero's otherwise very solid CV.
Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) is a sports star who's left bitter, broken and filled with rage when an accident renders him paralysed from the neck down. His life effectively over, he struggles daily with his wheelchair and anger issues until a scientist friend Geoffrey (John Pankow) gives him Ella, a capuchin helper monkey that he's been experimenting on in private.
Initially Ella meets Allan's every domestic need but gradually she starts to invade his innermost thoughts and before he knows it what starts as cleaning up around the house winds up in murder, mayhem and bloody revenge all being meted out by the mentally deranged monkey.
The experiments old Geoffrey has been undertaking on Ella have turned her into a strange and deadly beast capable of psychically locking minds with Allan and living out his every thought. When Allen gets angry Ella lashes out with murderous zeal taking out anyone in her primate path.
Now if the idea of a psycho monkey running riot through 1980s suburban America doesn't tickle your cinematic fancy then you're probably reading the wrong column frankly but while the premise sounds neat the delivery is totally schizophrenic. The long slow build-up to the moments of bloody revenge are played out like the most soppy of soap opera scenarios, down even to the maudlin piano soundtrack.
Things pick up rapidly as Allan – wheelchair bound, remember – has to try to stop his homicidal helper monkey before the bloodbath roars completely out of control and his new girlfriend Melanie (Kate McNeil) has to pay the ultimate price. Those pesky monkey maids can get very jealous, you know.
All in this remains a disappointment. The tension that arrives too late can't save it from counting as a rare failure in Romero's career. A good idea that lost too much in the making, it drove Romero back to his own back yard where much greater and altogether more gruesome creations were waiting to be unleashed.