(Trigger warning: descriptions of horror movie violence)
(Spoiler warning: in-depth discussion of Monkey Shines, including the ending).
“Once there was a man whose prison was a chair.
The man had a monkey, they made the strangest pair.
The monkey ruled the man, it climbed inside his head.
And now as fate would have it, one of them is dead.”
–From the poster for Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear , 1988
1988’s Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear should be the ultimate Tera movie. Written and directed by George Romero and based on the novel by Michael Stewart (which I haven’t read), the film has
- a protagonist with a disability
- spookiness and
- a monkey.
If that’s not a recipe for cinematic perfection, I don’t know what is. Certainly, I watch Monkey Shines every time it comes on television; still, I haven’t been able to figure out just how I felt about it until this past Friday. Unlike the disabled characters in Freaks or Spider-Baby—movies I love, by the way—quadraplegic hero Allan doesn’t hurt anybody directly. Yet why does his portrayal bother me in such a nebulous way?
I realize now that Monkey Shines plays into stereotypes that those other two films play with. Allan (Jason Beghe) doesn’t need to be a scary disabled person; his disability is frightening enough on its own. At the start of the movie, Allan—whose last name is “Mann”—is quintessentially “temporarily able-bodied”: white, athletic and conventionally handsome, he’s out for a run when he’s hit by a truck and becomes quadraplegic. His mother moves in to help out, and his wife hires an in-home nurse named Maryanne. Tensions stir as Allan finds himself depending on a bunch of women for various things.
Enter Geoffrey. Geoffrey is Allan’s (pale, skinny, bespectacled) scientist friend. He offers one of his lab monkeys—a capuchin named Ella—as a service animal, forgetting to tell anyone that he’s been injecting her with an experimental serum.
The experiments have boosted Ella’s naturally formidable intelligence; in a short time she can call specific people on the telephone, ferret her treats out of hiding places and, generally, does what Allan wants much better than any of the human females in the house. It’s as if she can read his mind.
Unfortunately, Ella is about the only female whom Allan doesn’t have a dysfunctional relationship with. His mother is a do-gooder and seems to be helping Allan more for her benefit than his. His nurse thinks Ella is “dirty” and “disgusting” for no reason at all, and has a pet budgie that Allan can’t stand. Meanwhile, his wife has been having an affair with his doctor behind his back—because Allan’s disabled, presumably. In the film, disability is emasculating: it makes an archetypal man rely on women who handle their newfound power very badly. Their incompetence, nagging and adultery prove how unnatural Allan’s dependence on them is.
The only natural relationship Allan has with a woman is with Melanie, the helper monkey specialist who’s supervising Ella’s training. They fall in love and prove that Allan’s disability, his wife, his mother and his nurse haven’t emasculated him completely. There’s hope for white, non-disabled masculinity yet. (I don’t think romantic relationships between disabled men and non-disabled women in movies are all just ways for the disabled man to exert some power over somebody; but, considering how all the other women and Allan’s disability are portrayed in Monkey Shines, I do think that’s what’s happened in this particular movie).
That hope blossoms when Allan sees another doctor, who finds a congenital malformation in his spine; this doctor thinks that Allan’s paralysis may not have anything to do with the truck accident, and that surgery could help Allan walk again. This revelation is just another reason for Allan to hate the doctor his wife is dating.
So Allan’s disability, his dependence and the women he’s surrounded by are the root of every bad thing in his life. The movie doesn’t examine why these bad things happen, or even why some of them are bad in the first place. Had it looked at them—really looked at them—there’d be no movie at all. Allan’s disability is the real horror in this film.
Because Ella does anything Allan wants. He hates Maryanne’s little budgie, and so does she. At one point, the bird lands on Alan’s face and tries to peck his eyes. Ella snaps its neck. When Allan finds out about his wife’s infidelity, he imagines her and her lover dying in a fire. Without a word from him, Ella makes his fantasy come true.
What makes Ella frightening isn’t just that she kills people. It’s that she taps into Allan’s deepest impulses, becomes an external id that knows all his secrets and reveals them to the world. As a helper, she represents his dependence, his weakness. Not only can’t Allan voluntarily control his limbs, he can’t control his anger either. In Ella’s hands, that anger becomes dangerous.
Allan realizes, eventually, that Ella is killing people he gets angry with. “Get out of the house, Mother,” he says. “I don’t want to hurt you.” Like many fictional people with scary powers they can’t control—children, women, teenage girls—Allan belongs to an oppressed group that society thinks has no power at all. The only way he can stop Ella is to destroy her. Allan turns on some music, and when Ella climbs up to his face for a cuddle, he grabs her by the throat with his teeth and throws her into the tape deck.
Only after facing his demons does Allan have the disability-reversing surgery. In the movie’s final scene, he gets out of the car and walks away on crutches. Like the obnoxious disabled children in Heidi and The Secret Garden who start walking after they stop being obnoxious, Allan’s disability fades after confronting his darker nature. Walking is not merely a karmic reward for Allan, but a logical one; everything involved in the murders—his mistreatment by women, his lack of impulse control, Ella herself—was due to his disability. Now that Alan is no longer dependent, he can’t be disabled anymore according to the film.
Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear isn’t the first movie (certainly not the first horror movie) to tap into systemic ableism and sexism to make its point. But the deft ways it entangles those oppressions together to frighten its audience is interesting…and telling.