The Films (3.5/5, 4/5)
George Romero got his start in feature films with the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Night of the Living Dead, and this is quite an understatement that Night of the Living Dead was one of the most influential films in the history of the genre. However, Romero would not do an immediate follow up to the film, waiting until 1978 and 1985 respectively to craft 2 sequels to make Night... the a trilogy.
Romero initially saw Night of the Living Dead as a gateway from the commercial advertising career he had to the career in feature film directing he wanted. He did not view himself a horror filmmaker at the time, but more in line with an auteur director whose would could be influenced by the filmmakers of the French New Wave. He would follow up Night of the Living Dead immediately with a comedy called There's Always Vanilla, when that didn't pan out he crafted a trilogy of thrillers Jack's Wife, The Crazies, and Martin before stepping back into living dead territory with the film that is arguably his masterpiece Dawn of the Dead, and between Dawn of the Dead, and it's sequel Day of the Dead he would create other non-zombie works, and even a non-horror film again (Knight Riders).
In the late 80's and early 90's the George Romero who created vastly original works of horror only occasionally stopping to create the occasional ode to the living dead crafted what could be considered his last 2 truly original films 1988's Monkey Shines, and 1993's Stephen King adaptation the Dark Half. After this he would make one more lackluster original film with 1999's Bruiser, before coming back with Land of the Dead, and apparently permanently working within that universe crafting a series of prequels, and spin-offs of his most famous creation. This month Shout! Factory are pairing up arguably the last truly interesting films by one of horrors previously most interesting filmmakers, and putting them out in Blu-ray editions.
Monkey Shines is an adaptation of the titular novel by author Michael Stewart. One might expect a film with a title like this one to be of a more exploitive and violent nature, but Romero channeling the more Martin side of his filmmaking creates something that is more on the disturbing and psychological side of the horror spectrum, rather than a film that where characters are simple monkey-death fodder.
The film concerns Allan a law student, who as the film begins is struck by a car and paralyzed. In order to assist him with the things he is no longer capable of doing he is given an intelligent monkey named Ella to assist him. This is a great help to Allan, however, all Hell breaks loose when Ella is given an experimental drug, and she begins enacting revenge for Allan (the pair developed a psychic link).
The film is a moderately paced thriller that takes it's time building up it's characters and situations. This helps in creating a better relationship between the viewer and characters when things get weird and violent in the films second half. The special FX were done by frequent Romero collaborator and FX artist GOD Tom Savini, however, the film is actually pretty light on the gruesome material with most of the kills happening off screen. Whether this was a conscious choice by the director, or by Orion Pictures the studio behind the film that is not made clear. Regardless, the film is a excellent thriller from director Romero, and even with it's few flaws is extremely watchable and quite entertaining.
The Dark Half is an an adaptation of the Stephen King book of the same name. The story follows Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) a fiction author whose regular work simply does not pay the bills, to help bring in additional money he writes trashy pulp literature under the pen name George Stark. One day after a class Beaumont is teaching concludes, a gentleman approaches the author declaring that Beaumont is Stark, and demands payment, rather than allowing the blackmail to happen Thad comes forward as Stark, and that's when things get crazy. The people most closely associated with the Stark pseudonym from the person who blackmailed Beaumont to the literary agents who promoted the novels begin to turn up dead. All the evidence points to Beaumont even his fingerprints show up at the scene. The murderer who does have a similar look to Thad, also fits the description of George Stark from the books themselves. Also, Thad seemingly has an alibi for his whereabouts for almost every killing. Something deeper and more bizarre is at play and it's up to Thad and the police detective assigned to the case (Michael Rooker) to get to the bottom of the killings before they get too close to home.
Stephen King wrote the Dark Half as a self-referential book. It deals with the period early in his career where he wrote some non-horror books under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. The film is a very good adaptation of the book sticking closely (from what I can recall) to the source material, and giving it a nice visual alter ego. Beaumont, of course, is meant to be a stand-in for King, but also works as one for Romero, and thus this sort of feels like his own version of 8 1/2, not that the 2 films feel directly comparable, but in a way the material certainly fits. Romero is a director that started in horror, but wanted to break out, before finding that his first film was such a smash within the genre that he could only find funding for those sort of films. He did not need an alter ego, but you can certainly see the arthouse sensibilities of the director come out in Romero's films such as Martin, Monkey Shines, and even the Dark Half.
Romero's direction here is spectacular, and he creates a truly fantastic visual style, and truly takes material that could have been bland in certain hands, creates a certain moodiness. On top of that the first 2 acts of the film build a nice tight bizarre atmosphere, before the director decides to loosen his restraints and go all out for the films conclusion. Of course, a film like this can be broken by it's performances, and luckily we have a trio of leads that truly anchor the film. Timothy Hutton is excellent in his dual roles as Beaumont and Stark. Hutton manages to find interesting nuances in both characters to make them both separate forces, yet similar enough to keep the audience guessing if they are one in the same. Amy Madigan does an excellent job playing his concerned wife, and special notice has to be given to Michael Rooker. Rooker is primarily known for playing the villain in his most popular roles from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to the Walking Dead. Here he plays a good guy giving Beaumont the benefit of the doubt, even when the evidence against him is mounting. of course, it wouldn't be a Rooker performance without a certain amount of rough edges, and you do feel that this sheriff could snap at any moment.
Monkey Shines and Dark Half are two lesser known films in the Romero canon. They came just as the director's star was starting to fade. He had just completed the excellent Day of the Dead, and was a few years from Bruiser and the Land of the Dead he would be in since. These are not top tier Romero films, but they certainly deserve more attention than they've gotten over the years, and these Blu-ray's certainly afford the viewer that opportunity.
Audio/Video (3.5/5/ 3.5/5)
Scream Factory does quite a respectable job bringing Monkey Shines and the Dark Half to Blu-ray. Both films are certainly upgrades from their DVD counterparts and come to the format in 1:85:1 1080p AVC encoded transfers. They both look very natural, colors are solid, and detail is excellent for the most part. There is a very decent grain structure at play throughout both features. There is some source damage on the Blu of Monkey Shines, and a little bit of compression artifacting during the darker moments of Dark Half, but these are limited and rare, and do not detract much from the viewing experience.
Both disc have 2 audio tracks a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 both in English. Both tracks sound quite good with dialogue, and score coming through nicely, and no audio anomalies to complain about.
Extra (4/5, 4/5)
Scream Factory did not call these special edition releases, but they might as well have. Both release contain new commentaries by director George A. Romero, extensive Making Of documentaries, deleted and alternate scenes, trailers, EPK's, and more.
2 lesser known Romero efforts get the light shined on them by those fine folks over at Scream Factory. The A/V on both releases is quite decent, and the extras package certainly push these over the edge. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.