Thursday, October 11, 2018

Reserved Seating: MONKEY SHINES

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who have a fridge full of brain serum and nothing to lose.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week, Rob and I kick off our first of four reviews of ‘80s horror films that neither of us have seen with George A. Romero’s first venture into studio horror: 1988’s Monkey Shines (also known as Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Terror). It tells the story of an athlete named Allan Mann (played awesomely by Jason Beghe) who loses everything (his girlfriend, his independence, his lifestyle) when he’s hit by a truck in a freak jogging accident, rendering him quadriplegic. In addition to a difficult live-in nurse and a hovering mother, Allan is supported by a helper Capuchin monkey named Ella, given to him by his scientist friend Geoffrey (John Pankow). Allan doesn’t know that Geoffrey experimented on Ella and injected her with human brain tissue. An attachment and telepathy develop between Allan and Ella that is wholesome at first, but soon turns deadly as Ella begins doling out punishment to avenge Allan’s festering subconscious resentments.

Monkey Shines is a movie I’ve been aware of since 1988 when I was six years old and too young to watch it. I was a kid who liked monkeys, so naturally I wanted to see Monkey Shines. I feel like this movie isn’t talked about all that much anymore. Even when George A. Romero passed away last year, I didn’t hear too much about Monkey Shines being an underseen entry in his filmography. On this first viewing, I’m surprised by that, because it has a built-in animals attack kitsch factor that people seem to like. As for me, I thought the movie was entertaining (if a little overlong) and I appreciate how often it goes for broke. Monkey Shines is full-on Monkey Shines, and you can either take it or leave it. We need to talk about Allan’s depression beard.

Rob: I’ve been familiar with Monkey Shines’ poster for as long as I can remember, but I have to admit I knew nothing else about it — including the fact that Romero wrote and directed it — until recently. I’m happy to say I really enjoyed it. It’s too long, like you said, but Romero is such a competent and conscientious storyteller that none of the extra bits feel superfluous. I love how simply and clearly he stages all the gags, how focused he is on seeing a specific idea through to its conclusion. There’s no flash (other than those fixed-POV shots on the wheelchair) or bits that feel thrown in to appease a studio or test audience (with the exception of one at the end). It’s a very steady, solid movie.
Adam: I’m glad you brought up the ending. I heard the studio forced a happy ending on Romero because they were desperate for Monkey Shines to be a hit (it was not). It doesn’t seem to mesh with the rest of the movie, which is pretty hard-edged (e.g. they kill off the hero’s mother, whose worst offense is she emotionally smothers her son). I don’t think the conventionally happy ending hurts the movie too much, but it is so at odds with the rest of the movie that I think it dulls the horror elements a little. It makes an otherwise feisty horror movie into one without much lasting impact. I get that this hero doesn’t deserve to get his comeuppance (he’s been through a lot already and he was mostly a pawn), but he is a real asshole for most of the movie.

Rob: You mentioned Jason Beghe, and I agree that he gives the kind of performance that shows how far a silly concept can go when an actor really sells it. His character “turn” lost me a bit in the middle — I was struggling with what, if anything, the movie was trying to say about the experiences of physically disabled people — but that’s more on the writing than the performance, and it sorts itself out by the end. He’s really fun.

Adam: He’s my favorite part of the movie. He knows just the right tone to play it so that the audience can lean into the camp factor and not just be there feeling sorry for him. It’s a fun, over-the-top somewhat comedic performance. When Beghe gets mad, it gives the movie a jolt of energy where you feel like the movie is going off the rails (in a good way) and anything could happen.

Rob: Speaking of which, that central conceit is pretty great. I love the idea of a paraplegic person venting their frustrations through this other entity (the monkey could easily have been a demon or something more supernatural) that is able to take vengeance on a world that has failed them. I actually wish the movie had taken that a little further, maybe even trading in its conventional happy ending for something more complex where he learns to live with his disability in a satisfying way. And bring back the fake depression beard!

Adam: I’m convinced no one looked at a single daily and the first time they saw how crazy that beard looks was at the premiere.
Rob: Since we’re giving notes, I also can’t help but feel that the entire John Pankow character could have been cut without losing too much. Pankow is fun (he’s essentially Jeffrey Combs playing Kevin Pollak), but he takes up too much space. It’s weird. Again, though, it’s not the performance. We just don’t need him. Give his essential stuff to Melanie (Kate McNeil), and you can enhance her character while cutting this down to about one hundred minutes. We’ve already got the Stanley Tucci character and the Stephen Root character (both evil/incompetent/sexy doctors) on top of Geoffrey, which is like three doctors too many. This movie has so many doctors! But again, even though the editor in me wants to chop this up, I’m still charmed enough by what Monkey Shines is getting at that I don’t mind the extra legwork.

Adam: I agree and disagree with you here. I think John Pankow is fine, even if his character is too much in the middle (i.e. are we supposed to sympathize with him or not?). Normally this would be a sign of good storytelling that a character has this shading, but here it just feels like they can’t decide. I also agree that it’s fun to see Stanley Tucci and Stephen Root smarm it up in early roles. It’s the rare movie where the leads are MIA these days and the people in the back of the cast are the ones who went the distance. Where I disagree is with the character of Melanie. Not to be unkind, but Kate McNeil doesn’t leave any impact on me. If they gave Pankow’s stuff to her, I think the movie loses a little bit of personality.

Rob: That’s fair. We should probably talk a bit about Ella the Helper Monkey, played with gleeful abandon by Boo. I’ll just say it: I like this monkey. I like the cut of her jib. I was impressed by the overall creativity of the monkey gags, especially the bit in the law school classroom where Ella, gradually establishing a psychic connection with Allan, raises her hand to answer a question when he can’t. It’s a perfect example of Romero doing something really creative with his premise, and I found myself wanting a K-9 or Turner & Hooch-esque buddy comedy in which Ella teaches Allan how to live and love all over again. Which brings me to a question: Did you expect her to jump in and help out during Allan’s sexy time with Melanie? I wasn’t sure how the movie was going to play that. “Ella! Get the lube!” Just an idea. Anyway, it taught us that anything is a sex swing if you try hard enough.

Adam: I’m glad Allan got some action. He’s been through a lot. No one should have to live life without someone sitting on their face. Ella rules. I love when she just pisses on Allen. It’s the best “fuck you” moment I’ve seen all #ScaryMovieMonth.
Rob: It’s amazing. So overall, I think Monkey Shines is a straightforward, elegant movie from a filmmaker who embraces straightforward, elegant storytelling. It’s a Mark Ahn, for sure. I wish it had played with the “handicapped person coping with life” angle a bit more, maybe fleshing out the relationship with characters like his mom (Joyce Van Patten) before diving into the revenge stuff. Be a bit more allegorical? But since this was Romero’s major studio debut, I also understand why he was forced to go a little more conventional with it. This is the kind of movie Romero makes look pretty easy. It should have been another calling card for him, proof that he could handle something bigger. Could you imagine him as a young indie director in our modern era (era)? Universal would see Monkey Shines and give him Fast and Furious 10 the following year. I’d watch the shit out of that.

Adam: Yep. It’s like how Bradley Cooper makes the great A Star is Born (2018) and people at junkets are like “You should direct Guardians Vol. 3!” As for Monkey Shines, I’m giving it a Mark Ahn as well. I had a lot of fun with it. It’s not up there with my favorite Romero (those would be Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow and Martin), but it’s great silver medal horror. What are we reviewing next week?

Rob: Next time, we’ll tackle Scream for Help, a thriller directed by Michael Winner, written by Tom Holland, and recently unearthed by Scream Factory.

Adam: I can’t wait. Every time they bring it up on the Shock Waves podcast, it sounds like the most entertaining movie ever made. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

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