Color, 1988, 114 mins.

Written and Directed by George A. Romero

Starring Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeil, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci, Janine Turner / Music by David Shire / Cinematography by James A. Contner

Format: DVD - MGM (MSRP $19.95)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 4.0

A restrained psychological horror effort from Pittsburgh's greatest filmmaker, Monkey Shines vanished almost immediately upon its theatrical release and has remained strangely neglected ever since. While not Romero's greatest work by a long shot, the film does display many of his savvy filmmaking gifts for suspense and characterization while spinning an entertaining and sometimes frightening yarn.

Allan (Jason Beghe), an athletic young man, is injured in a car accident which leaves him paralyzed from the neck down. Miserable with his confined existence, he finds his internal rage building as he is saddled with an unsympathetic nurse (Christine Forrest, a.k.a. Mrs. Romero) and an irritating bird. His girlfriend, Linda (Northern Exposure's Janine Turner), tries to help him, but the real aid seems to come from his shady friend Geoffrey (Mad about You's John Pankow), who supplies Allan with a cute little monkey as a kind of helper around the house. The monkey, Ella, belongs to a test group of monkeys being scientifically manipulated to become abnormally intelligent and responsive to human commands. Unfortunately, Ella and Allan begin to bond a little too closely, as the recipients of Allan's mounting rage turn up dead... and it seems little Ella may be responsible.

Nicely acted and visually slick, Monkey Shines perhaps remains most significant as the first real example of how Romero could manipulate his own style within the confines of a studio system (in this case, Orion). While Creepshow was distributed by Warner, he largely had carte blanche on that film; here he was forced to answer to higher powers, who nixed his original ending (which finds researchers packing up trucks with dozens of little Ellas in trainingin favor of a more streamlined, upbeat finale laced with a phony, Carrie-style shock ending. The tampering really doesn't hurt, though one's mind can certainly play around with the idea of a sequel -- something like a monkey version of The Crazies. Oddly, the studio had no problem with the film's rather protracted two hour running time, which could have used just a little trimming to speed up the pace.

After a few intermittent appearances on home video, the film has finally been treated to a decent transfer thanks to its acquisition by MGM. Amazingly, they even lavished upon it a new 16x9 transfer that looks better than the film did in theaters. The fullscreen version, which is open matte and loses nothing on the sides, looks excellent as well, and while neither version may be quite as visually ravishing as a film shot this year, the results are nevertheless quite impressive. Like most Romero films, the framing doesn't matter much one way or the other, as he generally frames everything important dead in the middle of the scene. The Dolby surround soundtrack is cleaner and punchier than the earlier Orion master, with David Shire's serciveable score creeping nicely from all four channels. Also includes the original U.S. trailer.

Color, 1993, 123 mins.

Written and Directed by George A. Romero

Starring Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Julie Harris, Michael Rooker, Christine Forrest, Royal Dano / Music by Christopher Young / Cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts

Format: DVD - MGM (MSRP $19.95)

Full Frame / Dolby Digital 4.0

Following the lackluster commercial reception for Monkey Shines, George Romero surprisngly decided to stay on to direct an adaptation of The Dark Half, his second shot at Stephen King following the anthology Creepshow. Unfortunately, while the film was completed in 1991, it sat on the shelf for two years due to Orion's financial difficulties. Ironically, The Dark Half has now become one of the first titles ushered through to DVD by MGM after acquiring Orion's back catalog, and horror fans who missed it during its fleeting theatrical run and long discontinued video release should have no problem discovering it now.

In the extended prologue, young Thad Beaumont discovers the joys of short story writing and spends his days churning out one tale after another on his new typewriter. Unfortunately, the narrative rush also provokes some splitting headaches which result in him passing out on the way to school. Doctors perform emergency brain surgery in which they discover the remains of an unborn twin absorbed into his brain - a little bit of eye here, some nostril there. For some reason, Thad's talent has caused the previously dormant cannibalized fetus to continue growing, and as the doctors remove it, several hundred sparrows begin flapping outside the windows...

Flash forward to Thad as an adult (Timothy Hutton). Now a successful novelist, teacher, and father, he is approached one day by an admirer who claims to know that Beaumont, a respected but not profitable novelist, is also writing sleazy junk novels under the name George Stark. Thad reacts violently to the blackmail attempt and, at the urging of his wife, Liz (Amy Madigan), goes public with the news. He even arranges a publicity stunt in which he kills off and "buries" Stark. Liz expresses relief, claiming that Thad exhibited a nasty, Jekyll and Hyde personality when he worked on the Stark novels. When the blackmailer ends up dead, however, Thad finds himself the number one suspect... and he begins to suspect that Stark hasn't completely been a figment of his imagination.

As usual, Romero exhibits a high degree of skill and control over the material, with skillfully handled shock sequences and a knack for bringing realism to seemingly bizarre, surrealistic imagery. A fine stable of actors further help in lending credence to the unlikely story, with Hutton doing a typically top-notch job in two roles and Madigan, somewhat underused, making a sympathetic wife. Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) turns in a fine performance as Alan Pangborn, King's recurring sheriff character, and Julie Harris (The Haunting) even turns in an amusing cameo. An early, effectively creepy score by Christopher Young (Hellraiser) provokes genuine goosebumps thanks to its subliminal manipulation of strings and children's choir to chilly effect. What prevents The Dark Half from becoming a completely successful film, alas, is what usually makes a film work: its extreme fidelity to the source novel. Not one of King's more coherent works, the storyline throws in numerous disparate elements and refuses to explain many of them, even on the level of nightmare logic. Romero was no doubt drawn to the theme of a man's rage becoming externalized (earlier explored in Monkey Shines), but the problem here is that no distinct pattern emerges to explain Stark's physical existence. Thad still exhibits signs of a psychological split, and the entire use of the sparrows seems like yet another King deus ex machina thrown in to create an effective image at the expense of narrative. King himself experienced a similar situation when his nom de plume, Richard Bachman (Thinner), was exposed by an avid fan, and no doubt he felt he was exorcising his frustration through this book. However, as with his other semiautobiographical works like Misery and It, self indulgence tends to sap away the real potential of the material. Had Romero dug deeper into the roots of King's nightmare vision and attempted to unearth the frenzied psychological patterns underpinning it, he might have had a real masterpiece on his hands. However, what remains is still quite effective on its own terms and makes one wonder what Romero could have accomplished had he chosen a better realized King novel.

MGM's open matte edition of The Dark Half appears to be taken from the same source materials used for the Orion laserdisc, albeit with a cleaner transfer and better color delineation. However, it still looks like an early '90s video transfer thanks to some murky shadows and occasionally smudgy background detail. While the lack of a new anamorphic facelift like Monkey Shines is regrettable, this is overall a more interesting and consistently "Romeroesque" film after the passage of time. The basic surround mix delivers both the music and shock sound effects (complete with plenty of flapping wings) with no noticeable distortion, and since a 5.1 mix seems extremely unlikely in the near future, it will do just fine for now. While George has spent quite a long time away from the public eye -- this was his last complete feature film -- his long awaited return with Bruiser should also be enough to lure fans back to discovering some of his less appreciated works like this.

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