Monkey Shines Blu-ray Review
Written by ZigZag
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Written and directed by George A. Romero
1988, Region A, 113 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on November 18th, 2014
Jason Beghe as Allan
Kate McNeill as Melanie
John Pankow as Geoffrey
Joyce Van Patten as Dorothy
Christine Forrest as Nurse Hodges
Stephen Root as Dean Burbage
Stanley Tucci as Dr. Wiseman
Janine Turner as Linda
William Newman as Doc Williams
Allan Mann has recently suffered a terrible accident that has left him a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. There is difficulty adjusting to his new life as he is forced to rely on others for his every need, a development that brings his clingy, overbearing mother immense joy. His live-in nurse, Maryanne, is a miserable woman who makes no secret of her unhappiness. Adding insult to injury, his girlfriend Linda walks out on him when he needs her most. Reduced to feeling like an infant, Allan's morale quickly tanks, until his friend Geoffrey introduces him to a special friend named Ella.
Ella, a capuchin monkey smuggled from Geoffrey's lab and trained by a woman named Melanie as a service animal to act as Allan's hands, soon replaces both his mother and harpy nurse. What starts off wonderful turns dark rapidly, as Ella begins anticipating her master's needs, including those sparked by anger and jealousy. What no one knows is that in addition to being naturally bright, Ella is also the subject of medical experiments that allow her to form a telepathic bond with the man in her life. Allan quickly realizes something is not right, but is helpless to stop it, as part of him benefits from the animal rage.
Writer/ director George A. Romero (Knightriders) adapts Michael Stewart's novel Monkey Shines into a well-crafted (albeit a bit long) psychological thriller. While known primarily for his zombie movies, the filmmaker has a lot to say about society, post-apocalyptic or otherwise. The man vs. nature story pulls off a wonderful trick here by taking the two lead characters and presenting them simultaneously as both victim and villain, allowing each to serve as protagonist and antagonist. All of the main characters act with the purest of intentions, but this dark tale has everyone set on a course for tragedy.
Jason Beghe (Californication) carries the film as Allan, and disappears into the character's physical restrictions and humiliations. The performance is strong and manages to keep viewers on Allan's side, even when he is consumed by fits of frustration and rage. Kate McNeill (The House on Sorority Row) provides the moral compass of the picture as Melanie, the animal trainer and love interest for Allan. Boston's Helping Hands program served as inspiration for her curriculum with service animals and receives a special mention at the beginning of the picture. John Pankow (To Live and Die in L.A.) rounds out the core group of talent as Geoffrey, the scientist too willing to sample his own medicine. The three share great chemistry and are believable in their relationships.
Supporting cast members Joyce Van Patten (Mame), Christine Forrest (Martin) and Janine Turner (Cliffhanger) are terrific antagonists as the women in Allan's life: his mother, nurse and ex-girlfriend, respectively. Audiences will enjoy seeing early performances from relative newcomers Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones) as Dr. Wiseman and Stephen Root (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) as Dean Burbage, both excellent as condescending jerks. Genre vet William Newman (Squirm) turns up as the benevolent Doc Williams. But the real star of the picture is a capuchin monkey named Boo, who plays Ella. Highly skilled and a natural performer, Boo gives the impression of a seasoned pro, despite this being her acting debut.
Monkey Shines was supposed to be Romero's ticket into the Hollywood studio system, but his independent production suffered at the hands of test screenings that resulted in some tinkering that came without his direct involvement. The marketing campaign was also a mess and there was little love from either critics or audiences. As it stands, this is a fairly solid character piece with elements of horror creeping in. There are pacing problems and the finished film could stand to lose about 15 minutes overall. That being said, I enjoy the picture and wish Romero could catch a break for all he has contributed as an incredibly talented icon in the horror genre.
Video and Audio:
Monkey Shines is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and looks quite nice. Picture quality is strong and both colors and flesh tones appear natural. There are a few speckles in the print, but this is a step up from all earlier releases.
There are two audio options, a default DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that really comes alive in the last half hour as the monkey sneaks around the house, and a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track that is not too dynamic, but gets the job done. Dialogue remains clear and free from distortion while music and effects tracks remain active throughout.
English subtitles are provided for anyone in need.
The audio commentary with George Romero is wide ranging and highly informative with tales of the production, including the difficulty of working with live animals. Moderated by Cinephobia Radio's Stuart Andrews, who keeps things moving at a nice pace, the conversation touches on topics ranging from the set design and make-up effects to the meddling studio. Romero is a great storyteller and quite complimentary of his cast, both human and non.
An Experiment in Fear (49 minutes) features several members of the cast and crew reflecting on the history of how the film came together. Romero is joined by Executive Producer Peter Grunwald and cast members Jason Beghe, Kate McNeil and John Pankow. Effects artists Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero and Everett Burrell share secrets of how the “stunt monkeys” were designed to double their counterparts.
An alternate ending (5 minutes) offers a glimpse of what Romero intended without the obligatory jump scare the studio demanded. The full frame picture quality is a few generations down, but serviceable.
A brief collection of deleted scenes (4 minutes) are also presented full frame, offering little to the film and were wisely trimmed.
A general highlight of productions that Tom Savini worked on are the home movies he shoots on set, and the video provided here (12 minutes) is no exception. Highlights include the creation of various monkey parts and the usual comedic hijinks of making movies.
Vintage interviews and behind-the-scenes featurettes clock in around nine minutes altogether and appear to have been shot during the same time frame in 1988. There are extended talking-head promo pieces as well as some local news coverage and a very brief look at some material recorded on the set.
A still gallery (30 images) provides a look at several effects models for both the various stunt monkeys as well as some excised surgical gore. There are also promotional photographs and a poster gallery.
A pair of miserable trailers and a TV spot round out the special features on this disc.
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