It seems that every once and a while, a neat little horror film comes along that eschews genre conventions and is able to tap into a new vein to provide its scares. Writer-director George A. Romero, of "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) and "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) infamy, brings forth "Monkey Shines," an adaptation of the novel by Michael Stewart.
Romero has always been a director who goes for the throat in delivering the shocks in his horror pictures. But in the savage gore and mayhem, he has never lost sight of the human characters, their drama, and their plight. In "Monkey Shines," Romero seems to have been domesticated somewhat - dare I say, "tamed" - in that characters and drama are most essential to the core of the film, and that horror is really the last thing on his mind.
"Monkey Shines" begins with the Good Day Gone Bad, Really Bad: Allan Mann (Jason Beghe), is a highly physical law student who goes for a jog early one morning after spending the night with his girlfriend Linda (Janine Turner). To avoid a dog on the sidewalk, he unknowingly runs into the path of an oncoming truck. He wakes up several weeks later in the hospital, now a quadriplegic, paralyzed, unable to use his body anywhere below the neck.
Confined to a wheelchair he moves around by working a lever with his mouth and having to rely on live-in nurse Maryanne (Christine Forrest), his doting, overbearing mother Dorothy (Joyce Van Patten) and having to deal with his pompous surgeon Dr. Wiseman (Stanley Tucci) who begins having an affair with Linda, Allan gives up and tries to commit suicide. Luckily, Allan's mad-scientist friend Geoffrey (John Pankow) may have a solution: Ella, an extremely intelligent capuchin monkey who is being trained by animal specialist Melanie Parker (Kate McNiel) to be a sort of help-primate for paraplegics and quadriplegics, much like a seeing-eye dog is used for blind people.
At first, a great weight seems lifted off Allan's shoulders; Ella's the perfect helper - she can answer the phone, play cassette tapes in the radio, and even help Allan turn the pages of his books when he reads. She even raises her hand in class for her turn to be called on. A deep bond develops between the two that's right out of any made-for-TV movie about hope and determination to beat the odds. Of course, and this is where the horror elements begin to kick in, what Allan doesn't know is that Ella is really Geoffrey's guinea pig in an experiment to create super-intelligent primates: he's been secretly injecting her with human brain tissue, which explains her super-intelligence in helping to make Allan's life a little bit easier. Even more horrifically, Allan has been having incredibly realistic nightmares in which he has acquired a monkey's-eye view of the world, and Ella is subconsciously acting out his deeply-suppressed anger, frustration, hatred, and rage for those around him. And it soon begins a battle of wits to see who is really controlling who, which also sees if Charles Darwin was really right all those years ago.
"Monkey Shines" develops so nicely during its first hour that it's easy to forget that first and foremost, it's a horror film and not just any horror film, a George A. Romero-directed horror film. Romero shows remarkable restraint in combining both the human story with the horror story, that both elements are given enough screen time to thoroughly develop and not seem so tacked-on to each other. That atmosphere and tension of the film's horror-themed second half is pretty intense, even if things can be forgiven for the haunted house-style climax.
This is easily the best-acted film Romero has ever directed, though obviously it's not his best; that honor goes to "Dawn of the Dead." All of the characters turn in fine and realistic performances, including John Pankow as Allan's drug-addled mad-scientist friend who truly has his friend's best interests at heart, even if they're morally gray in the end. But there is one performer who is highly deserving of much praise, and that is Jason Beghe. Jason Beghe delivers a strong, controlled central performance that in my opinion, was criminally overlooked by a great many awards organizations. His performance is one of the most convincing and sympathetic portrayals of a physically handicapped protagonist I've ever seen in the movies. Essentially a prisoner in his own body, he hits every emotive note perfectly, and we believe and can see where and why his anger and rage at his condition is one of the most believable performances in the history of Romero's long and distinguished career as a filmmaker.
"Monkey Shines" is an overlooked career highlight from a highly distinguished director, George A. Romero. Even more so, Jason Beghe's criminally underrated performance makes the film even more worthy of more significant praise.
This is one horror film that isn't monkeying around in the end. It is really scary.
Review by dee.reid from the Internet Movie Database.