Monday, December 15, 2014

MONKEY SHINES (1988) Blu-ray Review

Monkey Shines (1988) d. George A. Romero (USA)

Following the lackluster reception of 1985’s Day of the Dead, Romero had a difficult time getting his feet and his next project. He found both – or rather they found him – in the form of producer Charles Evans (older brother of Paramount honcho Robert Evans) earmarking him to script and helm the screen version of Michael Stewart’s novel about a paralyzed accident victim Allan (Jason Beghe). In a classic science-gone-awry scenario, the “Helping Hands” support group provides him with a full-time live-in assistant, a small capuchin monkey named Ella who just happens to be Allan’s scientist pal Geoffrey’s (John Pankow) pet project, if you’ll pardon the expression. See, Ella’s been injected with a serum derived from human brain tissue in order to make her brainier; before you can say “Monkey Say, Monkey Kill,” Ella starts inexplicably sharing Allan’s headspace and all who arouse her new boyfriend’s ire meet with untimely ends.

It’s all a bit silly, but rather than embrace the goofiness, Romero & Co. stumble by attempting to generate authentic pathos for Allan’s situation, taking it all too seriously to be genuinely fun. (Additional demerits for Beghe’s ridiculously fake beard.)

Unfortunately, the serious tone does not extend to the ostensible scenes of terror, which waver between campy and corny, although credit must be given to Tom Savini’s tech team (which included future superstars Greg Nicotero and Everett Burrell) for holding up their end of the bargain with convincing monkey hands and heads to perform the more outlandish stunts. Editor Pasquale Buba also deserves a medal for his exhausting labors, piecing together appropriate animal behavior takes. It is to their credit that the film works as well as it does.

The performances range from fine to adequate to meh, though it’s somewhat surprising to see how many future stars arose from the box office flop’s ashes: Stanley Tucci, Stephen Root, Janine Turner, and current Chicago P.D. frontman Beghe. Oddly enough, it was Pankow who probably had the most buzz at that point, having recently played second fiddle to William L. Peterson in To Live and Die in L.A.

With all the grousing listed above, one might be surprised to hear of Shout! Factory’s recent hi-def resurrection of the bungle that represented the first of Romero's two Orion-released failures, leading to a seven-year fallow period (at the end of which was 2000's Bruiser, with which no one was happy). However, it is in the abundant supplements, detailing the behind-the-scenes struggles and studio mishandlings that the gold lies on this particular patch of Blu. In addition to a terrific feature commentary track with Romero and stellar genre scholar Stuart Feedback Andrews, there is the excellent 50-minute retrospective feature (produced by Michael Felsher’s Red Shirt Pictures), An Experiment in Fear: The Making of Monkey Shines featuring the writer/director, actors Beghe, Pankow, and leading lady Kate McNeil, executive producer Peter Grunwald, Buba, and f/x guys Savini, Nicotero, and Burrell.

Typical of a Romero set, everyone has fond memories of the creative process, in spite of the frustrations arising from the endless takes (never work with children or animals!) and the revised ending, imposed by studio execs following some less-than-ideal test screenings. (The original ending is included as its own special feature here, and in spite of the Pittsburgh legend’s frequent protestations to the contrary, I’m going with the suits on this one, George.)

There are other deleted scenes, make-up tests, a vintage making-of piece, plus theatrical trailers and TV spots to round out the package. Ultimately, the analysis of this so-so effort from the much beloved director is more interesting than the feature itself, and in that respect, S!F’s release earns its place on collector’s shelves as a worthy upgrade.

Monkey Shines is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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