After the string of success enjoyed in the late 70’s to the mid 1980’s is was inevitable that Hollywood would come knocking on Romero’s door once again; and this time Romero answered the call, producing a set of films that were his only true foray into the mainstream.
The first of these was 1988’s Monkey Shines, and though this brought Romero to a larger audience it produced arguably one of his least favoured films.
Monkey Shines is a psychological horror film that melds oblique science fiction with Romero’s usual social commentary and heavy characterization. In this it is not dissimilar to his previous works, and if played slightly differently it would not be too out of place amongst them.
What sets Monkey Shines apart is the choice of protagonists themselves. Usually Romero sides with the social underdog, people with no power not because they are not capable but rather because society has taken that power from them. All his best protagonists are variants on this theme, essentially re-mouldings of Ben from Night of the Living Dead. What Monkey Shines delivers however is a character that stands this on its head; with results that he could be forgiven for not predicting.
Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) is an athlete with some prospects who finds himself paraplegic after a road accident. Understandably this makes Allan fall into a fit of despair which is alleviated somewhat by the arrival of Ella, a capuchin monkey trained as a helper. Unknown to Allan Ella is no ordinary capuchin, she has undergone medical experimentation imbuing her with intelligence that nature would not normally provide and her attachment to Allan loses all control when she is introduced to his girlfriend Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil) with predictably explosive results.
On the surface there is nothing wrong with any of this, the characters are typically well developed and exhibit the depth that Romero is known to deliver. The performances are also what one has come to expect from his work, making the characters believable and sympathetic.
So no one would expect any substantial negatives to arise form this.
But there are.
An aspect of Romero’s usual characterisation is lost in Monkey Shines, in that where all other Romero characters exhibit an intellectual certainty in their actions Monkey Shines instead presents us with people being led rather than doing any leading. Even in Bruiser, a film that is actually about a weak and ineffectual man, Romero manages to give his lead a sense of purpose that drives the action forward. The only character in Monkey Shines that shows any consistent initiative is Ella, the monkey herself, and the humans show little.
However Ella herself is also a victim and she is arguably the character in the film that wears the title the most securely. Where this takes us is down a path that, in spite of being well constructed, is ultimately unrewarding.
Our hero, Allen, is too driven by his own circumstances and though we sympathise with him he becomes harder and harder to actually like. He becomes that friend we all have who has legitimately fallen on hard times, but never lets you forget about it and often is left off party lists because of it. If we take this character and we square him up against Bella, who has just as many victim-points we end up with a situation where our loyalties are at best divided.
This all of course could work, and perhaps under a different director it would all work very well. It could be argued that it does work well and it is the audience themselves who are expecting something more akin to Romero’s other work. Both arguments have equal weight and it is not lost on this viewer that if this film had been produced by some other film maker my opinions may be quite different.
At his best Romero takes simplicity and creates complexity out of it, his films becoming something akin to a tapestry where a detail may take your attention but its only when you step back that you realise that such a detail is an aberration rather than a rule, that the detail really lies in the change in the colours hue rather than any sharp demarcation between them.
Romero creates with the occasional deft stroke rather than intricate detail and this is where Monkey Shines fails to deliver. The tapestry is lost because the detail overwhelms it rather than upholds it.
This observation can be seen in many elements of the film, from the superficial complexity of the characters (as opposed to the complex simplicity we are usually rewarded with) to a similar design to the sets used within the film.
Romero movies are in many ways similar to stage plays, even the way Romero shoots the action is extremely simple with the complexity of scenes created through editing rather than any camera trickery. This simplicity extends to the locations and sets used, often presenting us with characters in a location which has little to no set decoration. This has the effect of focussing the viewer’s attention to the performances or to the occasional change in hue that Romero deems necessary to give his work its flavour.
In contrast to Romero’s usual rather flat visuals Monkey Shines presents us with something more in standing with a TV movie rather than a stage play. We are treated to deep camera shots marred with a drab colour palate of brown, grey and off-white which has the effect of presenting a muddy image. This has a cumulative affect where, though none of the individual elements are actually bad, the combination of drab colour design, morose characters and bleak story makes the over all movie a difficult one to engage with.
This is a huge pity as the characters are so well drawn by some fine actors, in which I include Ella herself who provides an exceptional performance.
In spite of his genre Romero usually produces films that understand how to lift their audience. Even when we end on a bleak note (such as Martin or Knightriders) the tone is hopeful and the viewer is left with much to think about that resonates with them on a personal level. With Monkey Shines we get something that is very different, we get a film that ends on a positive but feels empty and without real meaning.
Much of this is due to the characters themselves rather than the situations they find themselves in. Usually Romero’s leads are characters that battle with brave certainty against an unyielding and un-understanding world so we appreciate them as noble loners and though we accept their end as inevitable we do not accept that end as defeat.
With Monkey Shines the character of Allan defeats Ella and regain the use of his legs in a last minute (and tacked on) plot twist, but his good fortune is empty and feels too much like failure. We are uncertain what, if anything, Allan has learned during his ordeal; because as a viewer there seems little to take from what has occurred.
Ella on the other hand remains the one character that resonates with the viewer, and the only one that retains our interest and sympathy. Though her development we see a character that is far closer to the usual lead of a Romero movie. She has been misused and misunderstood by those around her and through this she develops a clear purpose and destination, which she fights for with tenacity and certainty.
Ultimately this is the films over whelming error, it takes the usual Romero hero and turns them into the villain, while taking the very society that Romero usually holds up for harsh criticism and makes this the hero.
In retrospect is so easy to see why Monkey Shines leaves its audience feeling under whelmed, or in some cases even somewhat cheated by the films narrative. There is a far better story to be told in this film, and much of this could have been included if the character of Ella had be treated differently. Ella reactions to her treatment is not unreasonable considering she is treated as little more than a tool or a plaything and her emotions, feelings that have been medically altered to make her more susceptible to Allan’s orders, have been disregarded.
Monkey Shines could be easily seen as an allegory against oppression, if the movie did not take a resounding stand against the character that is oppressed in favor of her oppressor.