Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) is a college student who today awoke beside his girlfriend Linda (Janine Turner), got up to do his regular exercise routine, went jogging around the neighbourhood, and was promptly knocked over by a passing car when a dog leaped out at him. Now he is a quadriplegic, paralysed from the neck down and his life has gone downhill rapidly, with him seeing little hope for his future. His overbearing mother (Joyce Van Patten) ensures that he has the best assistance available, with his house decked out in the latest paraphernalia, but he's still not happy - so how about a little friend to help him through these dark days?
A little monkey friend that is, in this, the first film George A. Romero directed for a Hollywood studio (his previous films had been independents). Although he had been forced to change the ending (it is said he had envisaged an army of homicidal monkeys for his grand finale), and even then there was a silly shock imposed on him in the last minute or two, the results were nowhere near the disaster that was feared by his fans. Essentially Monkey Shines, adapted by Romero from the novel by Michael Stewart, was an update of those old mad scientist movies of yesteryear, only instead of a man in a gorilla suit that the hero had to contend with, it was an actual monkey.
A very well-trained monkey called Boo essayed the role of the psychopathic simian, a great little actor who was part of a genuine project to assist the disabled. Naturally, none of the animals involved in that went on to form a psychic link with their owners and end up channelling their impotent rages into actual murder, as happens here, and there are not one but two disclaimers, at the beginning and in the end credits, reassuring that it's only a movie, folks, and a monkey wouldn't deliberately slaughter anybody in the manner seen in this. So armed with that information, you can settle into the story that doesn't play quite as absurdly as it sounds - not quite, although there are silly parts.
For a start it's hard to believe that even in the position he is in, Allan would ever have it in him to wish those around him dead, so there's a hurdle that the film never clears. We are also meant to accept that Ella, his monkey, has been injected with a serum made from human brains which has given it a super intellect, for a monkey, that is, which is prone to reverting to its savage side just as Allan is. It's his best friend Geoffrey Fisher (John Pankow) who has developed the serum, and one sign that this is the eighties was that Lionel Atwill or John Carradine never had animal rights activists harrassing them, but as usual with this type of plot, convincing reasons for creating mad science are thin on the ground.
So there are the problems, but it's to Romero's credit, and that of his team, that Monkey Shines turns genuinely suspenseful once it builds up a head of steam. At first the monkey starts small and kills the pet budgie of Allan's grumpy live-in nurse (played by Romero's wife Christine Forrest), but once she moves out and his interfering mother moves in, his previous psychological lift that Ella has provided reverts to his foul moods, so foul that Ella rushes out of the house one night and bumps off Linda and the doctor who she left Allan for. He cannot quite believe what is happening at first, though a psychic link to the creature confirms his worst fears, and the stage is set, after a little too much scene-setting to be honest, for a high quality suspense half hour. Besides, the detail that Romero goes into is very informative about the difficulties quadriplegics face, from getting around to lovemaking (another nurse, played by Kate McNeil, becomes Allan's girlfriend and potential monkey victim), so this can be said to be educational as well, even if losing the power of your limbs is scarier than any knife-wielding primate. Music by David Shire.
American writer/director and one of the most influential figures in modern horror cinema, whose ability to write strong scripts and characters match his penchant for gory chills. The Pittsburgh native began his career directing adverts before making Night of the Living Dead in 1968. This bleak, scary classic ushered in a new era of horror film-making, but Romero struggled initially to follow it up - There's Always Vanilla is a little-seen romantic drama, and Jack's Wife was butchered by its distributor. The Crazies was a flop but still an exciting slice of sci-fi horror, and while the dark vampire drama Martin again made little money but got Romero some of the best reviews of his career and remains the director's personal favourite.