Monkey Shines Marks an Offbeat, But Flawed, George A. Romero Effort

Over the course of his career, George A. Romero established himself as a Master of Horror. After all, Romero largely crafted much of what we now know associate with the zombie genre of horror. His ‘Living Dead’ series was massively influential – Romero delivered a significant shift to zombie movies. Outside of the zombie subgenre, Romero’s work may be best described as eclectic and often ‘hit and miss’. Some of his output included edgy thrillers like Martin and The Crazies as well as oddball entries like Knightriders and flat thrillers including The Dark Half. One movie, often forgotten, was the late 1980s thriller, Monkey Shines. Critics were divided at the time of its release and audiences didn’t turn out in small numbers.


Following a tragic accident, law student and athlete Allan Mann is left adjusting to life as a quadriplegic. As he struggles to find a sense of purpose, his friend Geoffrey, a research scientist, brings Allan a Capuchin monkey, Ella, to help with day-to-day tasks and lift his spirits. But what Geoffrey neglects to tell Allan is that Ella has been receiving an experimental serum designed to increase its intelligence. And with each passing day, Ella blurs the lines between pet and master – wresting control away from Allan.

Monkey Shines Shows Flashes of Potential, But Ultimately Falls Flat

Amongst George A. Romero’s output as a filmmaker, Monkey Shines is a bit of an anomaly. In fact, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say it’s an oddball standout in some ways. On the surface, Monkey Shines looks and plays out like a standard 80 thriller with few surprises. Based on Michael Stewart’s novel of the same name, the major plot beats almost feels formulaic as the story borrows from a handful of longstanding horror traditions. There’s bits of a ‘mad scientist’ narrative mixed in with killer animal tropes and the conventional psychological thriller framework familiar to a lot of 80s and early 90s movies. In addition to directing, Romero takes on writing duties adapting Stewart’s original work. Maybe the source material itself was fairly straightforward. Regardless Romero’s adaptation feels familiar and predictable.

On the surface, Monkey Shines looks and plays out like a standard 80 thriller with few surprises.

Yet there are times where Monkey Shines feels like there is a bigger and better movie waiting to burst out. Though it’s a movie from the late 1980s, some scenes feel progressive in how they treat disability. Some audiences have referenced the love scene between Jason Beghe’s “Allan” and Kate McNeil as ‘creepy’ – that’s both dated and unfair. Nonetheless, Romero never fully addresses any particular subtext or theme. That is, Monkey Shines doesn’t have much to say about disability or animal experimentation or its Frankenstein narrative around men play ‘God’. Inevitably, Romero has to give in the horror-thriller format and ensure there’s some scares and action. The result is a movie that never rises above standard thriller format.

Monkey Shines Fails To Find Many Scares From Its Little Capuchin Monkey

Arguably, Monkey Shines struggles most as a result of two recurrent problems – lack of scares and tonal inconsistencies. Despite Romero’s history of crafting shocks and scares, he’s never able to drum up much in the way of consistent suspense. In part, the problem stems from the thriller’s use of a Capuchin monkey. Simply put, as far as killer animals go, Ella is … not threatening. Most scenes intended to be suspenseful fall flat in no small part due to the sheer ridiculousness of trying to find a small monkey scary. And yes, there are a handful of moments where the Capuchin monkey completely undercuts any serious attempt at tension.

Despite Romero’s history of crafting shocks and scares, he’s never able to drum up much in the way of consistent suspense.

Aside from the lack of scares generated by a Capuchin monkey, Monkey Shines also suffers from tonal inconsistencies. Several scenes border dangerously close to camp. Whether it’s the convoluted use of slow-motion during the tragic accident scene or a finale that requires the cast to double-down, Monkey Shines can’t seem to decide if it’s a straight-faced thriller or an over-the-top mix of horror and comedy. The result is a movie that is never good, even if it is eccentric, but never bad enough to hit that ‘cult status’ sweet spot. Yes, it’s often a quirky and strange movie, but Romero never ensures it’s compelling, tense, or urgent.

Monkey Shines a Strange, If Not Unremarkable, George A. Romero Effort

Is Monkey Shines a bad movie? Is it so bad, it’s good? Truth be told, it’s none of those things. Some parts of this thriller border on – and occasionally – veer into unintentional camp territory. Yet it’s also not consistently campy enough to be a guilty pleasure. Perhaps the safest thing to say about Monkey Shines is that it’s not one of George A. Romero’s better movies. There’s an interesting idea somewhere in this thriller but Romero struggles to find it. Whether it’s the lack of urgency and scares or some the puzzling creative decisions, Romero just can’t make this one work. Aside from older purists, Monkey Shines doesn’t warrant much of a recommendation.


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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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