Allan Mann (Beghe), a promising athlete, is crippled and left to rot in a wheelchair. That is, until a trained monkey named Ella enters his life, bringing hands-on help and a spate of fateful coincidences.
George Romero has never quite managed to regain the heights he attained with Night Of The Living Dead, his low budget, black and white horror flick that went on to become one of the most imitated and influential films of its kind in the last 20 years. Creepshow (written by long-time associate Stephen King) was patchy and its parody too self-conscious; Knightriders, a risky updating of the King Arthur legend with motorcycle riders (and Ed Harris) was perhaps underrated and died at the box office. Romero, it was muttered, was yesterdays man.
Monkey Shines will surely change any such premature judgement. Its a superb adaptation of Michael Stewarts interesting but rather pedestrian book of the same name, and casts Jason Beghe as Allan Mann, the bright young athlete who finds himself crippled after an accident. Unable to adjust to life as a quadriplegic, appalled by the attitude of his mother and friends, deserted by his girlfriend (in a gruesome touch she starts sleeping with the surgeon who operated on him), he slips swiftly into despair.
Enter Geoffrey Fisher (John Pankow), an old friend and seriously spaced-out research scientist whos been experimenting with intelligence-enhancing drugs on monkeys. Along with trainer Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil), Fisher adapts Manns home to accommodate Ella, a capuchin monkey who has been trained to act as his nurse. (Not quite as daft as it may sound - organ grinder monkeys are increasingly being used as companions for quadriplegics in the same way guide dogs traditionally accompany the blind.)
What Mann doesnt know is that Fisher is still regularly injecting the monkey with an experimental drug. As the relationship between human and animal develops, Mann begins to experience vivid dreams, Ella terrorises the human nurse until she is forced to leave and hurrah! the cheating ex-girlfriend dies in a mysterious fire.
What makes all this work so well is that Romero genuinely explores the plight of the victim and his family, and grounds his characters so skilfully that by the time the extended climax comes and it seems to go on for ever it is all utterly convincing. Theres some splendid dark humour along the way (You must be Allan, youre the only one sitting down) a host of fine, solid performances, and, best of all, a near-perfect love scene nailed down second by second, in which, heartbreakingly, the hero can only move his head.
By skipping on any predictable creature effects and concentrating instead on the people involved and what moves them, George Romero, with Monkey Shines, has built a reputation-restoring film of genuine emotion and character.
Getting the best out of a middling novel, Romero finds new, less gruesome avenues for his skills.