Home Video Hovel: Monkey Shines, by Tyler Smith
George Romero’s Monkey Shines starts out as a fairly touching story of an athletic young man tragically paralyzed when hit by a car. Once a champion runner, he is now a quadriplegic, only able to move his head. Along with the physical struggles, there are also social implications. His girlfriend, deciding that she just can’t deal with the burden of taking care of him, decides to walk away. However, his overbearing mother sees this as an opportunity to not merely reenter her son’s life, but dominate it. The situation begins to look more and more grim, and we begin to wonder if there is any hope to be found in the young man’s life.
Then he gets a forges a telepathic bond with a helper monkey that begins to do the murderous bidding of his subconscious, resulting in the horrible deaths of his family and friends.
I’ll give you a moment to let all that sink in…
Now I’m sure that, for a moment there, it seemed as though I was just flinging my fingers at the keyboard and seeing what happened, but this is the actual story of Monkey Shines. While it is well-made and quite well-acted, the film is so inherently ridiculous that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it. The sheer number of people required to make this concept a reality is staggering. And the fact that it is all done with such sincerity and a straight face is even more baffling.
I recognize that basically anything can be frightening, if done correctly. And, indeed, apes and gorillas have proven themselves to be quite intimidating on film. But there’s something about Capuchin monkeys that fails to put the fear of God in me. Perhaps it’s their size, maybe the adorable face. Whatever it is, it’s just not scary, and that so many people thought it might be is fascinating to me.
And let’s not forget about that telepathic connection between man and monkey. While I may enjoy some of the execution (with the monkey taking on human qualities and the young man becoming a bit animalistic), we aren’t given much in the way of explanation. I don’t require that my movies explain everything to me, or even that they always make sense, but a cursory attempt to couch it all in something even somewhat understandable is appreciated. It doesn’t take much; just enough that my mind isn’t always returning to it, distracting me from the story.
What really gets me, though, is that the film is actually very competently made and, at times, even sensitive to the plight of its characters. Jason Beghe as the quadriplegic really manages to find the genuine hopelessness that one must feel in those circumstances. I found myself wondering what I would do in his situation, seemingly trapped in a body that won’t respond like it used to. His frustration, heartbreak, and anger is the true heart of the film, and it really comes through. Even the initial connection with the monkey is effective. He is given not only an opportunity for self sufficiency, but also a reliable new companion.
This is what makes the eventual tonal shift all the more frustrating. I find myself wondering if this concept could ever work, and I feel like it couldn’t. Certainly, with a cast as committed and a filmmaker as talented as this, everything should have come together nicely. And the fact that it doesn’t probably means it never could.
The subtitle of Monkey Shines is “An Experiment in Fear.” This is a reference to the fact that the monkey underwent strange scientific procedures before coming into the young man’s life (the attempted explanation for the telepathy, but still not specific enough to land). However, another way to look at it is on the part of the filmmakers themselves. As if they put the film together and wondered, “Let’s see if a movie about an adorable killer monkey can be scary… Oh, it can’t? Okay. Noted. Back to the drawing board.”