At the end of the 1980’s, George Romero found him­self start­ing over again.  After a decade-plus and sev­er­al clas­sic films togeth­er, he part­ed ways with pro­duc­ing part­ner Richard Rubinstein and his com­pa­ny Laurel to become a free agent.  In what might be the strangest twist of his career, the life­long inde­pen­dent film­mak­er found him­self mak­ing  a cou­ple of films released by a major Hollywood com­pa­ny, Orion Pictures.  The first of the­se was a quirky “mad sci­ence meets Rear Window” item called Monkey Shines and it MonkShi-posshows him play­ing the Hollywood game with his unique­ly humane style of hor­ror intact.

Monkey Shines takes its basis from a Michael Stewart nov­el, adapt­ed for the screen by Romero him­self, and tells the tale of Allan Mann (Jason Beghe), a promis­ing law stu­dent whose life is sud­den­ly derailed when he gets hit by a truck while jog­ging.  He ends up a para­plegic and tries to fight off depres­sion as he attempts to rebuild his life.  A ray of hope shi­nes through when sci­en­tist pal Geoffrey (John Pankow) puts him togeth­er with a pro­gram that trains capuch­in mon­keys to work as assis­tants to the dis­abled.  Allan hits it off with his mini-simi­an friend and there’s even a cute train­er, Melanie (Kate McNeil), lurk­ing in the wings.

MonkShi-01However, nei­ther Allan nor Melanie know that Geoffrey pro­vid­ed the pro­gram with an unusu­al mon­key.  This mon­key has been given an exper­i­men­tal for­mu­la derived from human brains and Geoffrey is hid­ing it out with Allan to keep it from an unscrupu­lous boss, Dean Burbage (Stephen Root).  Soon, Allan finds him­self prone to strange mood swings and strange dreams where he seems to be “see­ing” through the monkey’s eyes.  The high­ly intel­li­gent mon­key becomes very pos­ses­sive towards Allan — and when Allan feels anger at those who turned their backs on him, strange acci­dents begin to occur.

The plot of Monkey Shines is every bit as eccen­tric as it sounds but Romero smart­ly plays it straight, invest­ing in more char­ac­ter­i­za­tion than usu­al for a Hollywood hor­ror flick of the ‘80s to ground the plots strange turns (this applies to the leads, the periph­er­al char­ac­ters are drawn a MonkShi-02lit­tle more broad­ly).  The result is a slow-burn affair but this pays off dur­ing a crack­er­jack final half-hour that func­tions as one big mul­ti-lev­el set­piece pit­ting Allan, with only a motor­ized wheel­chair at his dis­pos­al, again­st his now-homi­ci­dal mon­key.  Strange as that might sound, it’s one of the bMonkShi-03est set­pieces in Romero’s sto­ried career.

Romero keeps the whole thing mov­ing for­ward with a nice sense of pol­ish that is achieved by a crew that mix­es old faces with Hollywood pros.  On the Romero vet side, there is nice­ly tex­tured pro­duc­tion design from Cletus Anderson and sub­tle yet sharp edit­ing from Pasquale Buba, who real­ly earns his stripes dur­ing that tense finale.  On the Hollywood side, James A. Contner pro­vides sleek cin­e­matog­ra­phy that incor­po­rates a few nifty tricks (wheel­chair-mount­ed shots, “monkey’s eye” cam) and a lav­ish orches­tral score by David Shire that is a far cry from Romero’s old library music sounds.

Monkey Shines is also aid­ed nice­ly by one of the best casts that Romero ever worked with.  Beghe does nice work in a very dif­fi­cult role, rely­ing on facial and vocal expres­sive­ness to sum­mon up com­plex lay­ers of emo­tion since he can’t use his body for most of the film.  MacNeil makes for MonkShi-04a like­able, smart (and nice­ly under­stat­ed) roman­tic inter­est while Pankow hams it up in an enjoy­able way as the film’s res­i­dent mad sci­en­tist.

Elsewhere, the back­ing cast is full of famil­iar faces on the way up: Stanley Tucci pops up as a duplic­i­tous doc­tor, Elaine Turner is the unfaith­ful ex and Root has fun in a few brief sce­nes as Geoffrey’s cold-blood­ed boss.  Romero fans will be hap­py to see Christine Romero pop up as an ill-tem­pered nurse who tan­gos with Allan and his lit­tle helper.

In short, Monkey Shines is an inter­est­ing ges­ture towards the main­stream for Romero.  The film suf­fers from a few bla­tant Hollywood touch­es — the vic­tims are all set up as nasty “they’re ask­ing for it” types and the stu­dio-dic­tat­ed end­ing feels kind of pat — but Romero’s will­ing­ness to take his time and build up dimen­sion­al leads serves him well.  Besides, that all-stops-out finale demands to be seen by the director’s fans.