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John’s Horror Corner: Monkey Shines (1988), George A Romero’s murderous monkey relationship movie.

January 8, 2021

MY CALL: This relationship and character-driven film feels more like an intriguing mystery than horror in its tense atmosphere. A very pleasant surprise and a big change of pace from most 80s horror. MORE MOVIES LIKE Monkey Shines: Shakma (1990) is the obvious double feature choice and… strangely coming to mind: Misery (1990).

After former college track star Allan (Jason Beghe; One Missed Call) suffers a crippling neck injury in a car accident, he is rendered a quadriplegic. Unable to cope with the dramatic change, his girlfriend Linda (Janine Turner; The Ambulance) leaves him for the very surgeon who saved his life, Dr. Wiseman (Stanley Tucci; The Silence). Likewise depressed, Allan isn’t handling his transition well.

A scientist researching human brain tissue’s effects on capuchin monkeys, Allan’s friend Geoffrey (John Pankow; *batteries not included) is under tremendous pressure to please his shady dean (Stephen Root; Barry, True Blood, Get Out, Bad Milo). After trying to experimentally increase its intelligence, Geoffrey has one of his capuchin test subjects trained as a care companion to tend to Allan at home.

As the film advances we observe a tangle of interpersonal relationships. Trained by Melanie (Kate McNeil; The House on Sorority Row), this adorable care companion monkey is named Ella, and she immediately wins Allan’s heart (along with the hearts of viewers). As Melanie continues to train Ella with Allan, Melanie and Allan grow closer as Ella seems increasingly attached to Allan. Allan’s live-in nurse also comes to form an adversarial relationship with Allan and Ella. And Allan distances himself from his well-intended but mettlesome mother. Meanwhile, Geoffrey continues his research (including sneaking an injection of “brain fluid” to Ella) as his job comes under threat from his dean.

The nurse and Allan are at each other like a cat-hating dogger lover and a dog-hating cat lover. The nurse seems more concerned with her noisy annoying pet bird than with Allan, and Allan clearly appreciates Ella more than his nurse. It comes to a predictable yet satisfying end.

Following the “psychic phenomena” trend of 80s horror, Ella and Allan develop a sort of telepathic link, or so it seems, and Ella carries out Allan’s aggressions for him. But the standout component of the film is its relationships. Wereally feel Allan’s frustrations with his mother and nurse, likely many of us can relate. We we really feel the affections for Ella… eventually turning to fear.

Writer (in part) and director George A. Romero (Dawn of the Dead, Knightriders, Creepshow) was an observant student of human behavior in his films. His use of different and various relationships to drive the story is a less common approach that cultivates a mood more steeped in suspense than horror.

This isn’t at all gory or scary or even creepy. Tension mounts for sure, but it’s hardly intense or dreadful—more what you would feel watching a mystery unfold. This film relies instead on a very engaging story which amplifies through its numerous character relationships. So even though it’s not scary or gory, it still feels very mature and entertaining.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2021 6:04 pm

    Excellent review. I remember watching it on VHS on a “huge” 28 inch Sony. I also don’t understand why it was classified a horror, more of a suspense to me. But a decent flick for a night of popcorn on the big screen.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      January 8, 2021 6:06 pm

      Back in the days of video stores, this would have belonged among the “thrillers” but still got ushered to horror for the VHS sleeve and director, I’m sure.

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