Monkey Shines (1988)

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*. The story is a new wrinkle on an old theme. Within every human is an evil doppelgänger that threatens to slip free and wreak chaos. Dr. Jekyll is an upstanding member of society until he transforms into Mr. Hyde. Lon Chaney, Jr. gets hairy when there’s a full moon. In both cases they’re still the same person, but their dark side has been unleashed.
*. Freud added a model of psychology to this. Mr. Hyde and the Wolf Man were creatures of pure id: feral, uncivilized, hungry for blood and sex.
*. Oliver Stone played a variation on the same theme with The Hand (1981). Michael Caine, a comic book artist, loses his hand in a car accident. This leads his wife to wander from him, causing him to loose his murderous phantom hand upon the objects of his rage.
*. Monkey Shines is, thematically, a very similar film. Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) is a law student who is paralyzed from the neck down after being hit by a car. This leads his girlfriend to wander from him (these injuries are always linked to impotence), causing him to project his murderous monkey assistant upon the objects of his rage.
*. Ella the monkey is variously identified as the devil and the “animal instinct” that lies below our civilized behaviour. She is psychically joined to Allan so that they are really the same person, meaning she represents something unevolved and still living in the jungle within him: an id-ish alter ego.
*. So, for example, when Allan rages against his mom it’s not just his inner monkey talking but clearly a way of giving vent to his own repressed anger. Ella allows for the physical expression of these feelings.
*. The link between the two is strikingly rendered in their final confrontation when they both bare their teeth and growl at one another. Romero has their pointed lower fangs mirror in consecutive shots.

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*. So like I say, it’s an old story. Romero would return to it again with Bruiser (2000), where a mask provides the alter ego that allows the emasculated protagonist to take vengeance against others. In any genre there are only a handful of basic stories to tell. The rest is window dressing.
*. Is the presence of a monkey, however cute and well-played by the deservedly credited “Boo,” enough to make Monkey Shines into something different? Not really, but there’s more.
*. In particular, there’s the exploration of the ugly tension that tends to fester in any codependent relationship. Allan is surrounded by nagging women who seem to take some masochistic pleasure in being his servant. His nurse whines about him being her “burden,” which makes her taking the job in the first place a mystery. And then there’s Allan’s mother, who wants to mommy him but who he (rightly?) suspects of being a maternal black hole, a “conniving, clinging, blood-sucking bitch.”
*. Ella herself is another one of these figures (she’s clinging and even blood-sucking too at one point). I think all of this makes for a frank presentation of the real difficulty in such relationships. I only felt some disappointment that more wasn’t done with it, as the ending is really a whitewash: the miracle of Allan’s surgery and his hooking up with a blonde babe. It was a happy ending that the studio insisted on and that Romero was unhappy with.
*. Speaking of frankness, I also thought the presentation of Melanie and Allan having sex to be somewhat ground-breaking. Basically, Romero makes it as clear as he possibly can given the obvious problems with censors (and mores?) that Melanie isn’t having intercourse with Allan but is riding his face. That’s bold, but realistic.
*. How odd that the two nastiest characters in the movie — the nurse (played by Romero’s wife Christine Forrest) and the sadistic Dr. Burbage — both survive. Perhaps they were script casualties.
*. You have to give credit to Romero for always taking on interesting projects and handling them intelligently. Monkey Shines isn’t a great movie though. In the first place, it’s not very scary. I mean, can we really be anxious over Ella poking matches at Melanie?
*. It also has a tendency to slip over the line into parody Hitchcock. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t think it works to have such a hilariously silly climax. Coupled with the happy ending (which does come with an enjoyable, if gratuitous jump scare), it’s hard to finally decide what the idea was. I came away from it thinking that for a movie from such a director, with such a title, you’d expect it to be a bit more fun.

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