Collins’ Crypt: An Underseen Romero Double Feature Deserves Its Due

Brian watches MONKEY SHINES and THE DARK HALF back to back and notices some interesting parallels.

As of this writing, it's been 14 years since George Romero directed a movie that didn't have "Of The Dead" in the title. That would be Bruiser, his not well-loved revenge movie that is notable for being the first one he shot in Canada instead of Pittsburgh, where he made all of his previous features. The last Pittsburgh movie was The Dark Half, which was shot in 1991 but not released until 1993, as the film sat on the shelf for a while due to Orion's financial issues. Incidentally, those issues were in part caused by so many box office disappointments like Monkey Shines, Romero's previous film for the company. Both of them were recently released as jam-packed special editions for their Blu-ray debut via Scream Factory, and it was the first time I watched them more or less back to back and realized that they not only shared many similarities, but that they were among Romero's most autobiographical efforts.

And that's pretty interesting, because both of them were based on novels that Romero didn't write (one of the aforementioned similarities is that they are the only two entries in his filmography that are based on full-length novels). Dark Half is, of course, based on Stephen King's 1989 effort, and Monkey Shines was based on a 1983 novel by Michael Stewart. I can't vouch for Monkey Shines because I've never read it, but the film version of Dark Half doesn't deviate from the source material nearly as much as the average King movie. The biggest difference in Dark Half is that, on the page, it wouldn't make sense to have the same actor play both Thad and George, as Romero did for his film (with Timothy Hutton playing the roles, quite well I might add), because they were described as very different in build and appearance. The story, about an author's pseudonym coming to life and wreaking havoc, was based on King's personal experience from when he was outed as Richard Bachman, though in real life the sleuth wasn't a slimeball looking to blackmail the author, as he is in The Dark Half.

And yet, despite staying true to the novel and having its obvious roots in something from King's own life, you can see it as a metaphor for Romero's career, and it's even more evident now than it was in 1993. As I mentioned, it's been nearly 15 years since Romero made something that wasn't about zombies, and I am willing to bet he wishes that weren't the case. However, his staunch independent nature (he's made fewer studio films than even Carpenter, I think) and the box office failure of nearly all of his traditionally released films (Creepshow is one exception) has made it all but impossible for him to get the funding he needs for anything that doesn't have zombies, since those films are almost guaranteed to be profitable. Likewise, Thad Beaumont is frustrated because his passion projects (traditional literary fiction) don't sell particularly well, while his dark and gruesome "Machine" novels (written under the George Stark name) are monster successes. At one point his agent says "I read George Stark because it's fun - I read Thad Beaumont because it's my job," something I'm sure Beaumont has realized and thus has added to his frustration that he has to keep dipping into the Stark well to make a living.

I mean, it doesn't take much effort to see the sort of movies Romero would be making on the regular if money/studio demands were never an issue. When he's calling the shots, you get challenging, unique movies like Knightriders and Martin, but when it's a studio, he seemingly has a choice between zombies or Stephen King. Not that he dislikes his undead pals, not at all - but you know he must be exasperated with the hand he's been dealt, as he probably has other, more Knightriders-type movies in him, but he'll never in a million years get the money to make them. In Dark Half, Beaumont is faced with similar issues: he has two newborn babies (twins, of course) and his wife frets that they won't be able to afford the house or put food on the table with the money he makes from his Beaumont novels. But when the slimy guy (Robert Joy) threatens to expose what he knows, that Stark is just Beaumont, he fears that those book sales will flounder as well once readers discover that Stark is a figment of an author no one likes. This is where King greatly departed from his own life - in reality, the real guy was hugely successful, and those "Bachman Books" only really took off once people knew they were his.

So even though it was someone else's book, Romero found a way to make it personal without deviating much from the source, which is the sort of thing that should be appreciated more than it is. Alas, Orion's aforementioned money issues left the film on the shelf for a long time and without much of a marketing budget for when it finally did arrive - I distinctly remember being surprised that it was opening when it did, as I hadn't seen any trailers or TV spots (even at 13, I had an awareness for such things). King movies were hot at the time thanks to Misery and Pet Sematary, and it was based on one of his more recent novels, so that plus Romero's name should have given it a boost, but it just couldn't overcome its distributor's massive problems. And thus it was a pretty big flop; per BoxOfficeMojo, it ranks 32nd out of 39 King-based movies, and all but one of the lower-ranking films weren't playing on as many screens.

The earlier Monkey Shines was released during better times for Orion, but it had an even bigger hurdle. Not only was it based on a book by someone who wasn't Stephen King, but it was Romero's followup to Day of the Dead, which at the time wasn't nearly as beloved as it is now. If he couldn't even get zombies right (so the consensus was back then; it's been rightfully reappraised), what luck would he have with a movie about a guy in a wheelchair hanging out with a monkey? And Orion doubled down by releasing it in the summer against Cocktail (since Color of Money opened while Top Gun was still in the middle of its record-setting run, the film was basically Tom Cruise's true followup to the then-14th biggest grosser of all time) and giving it an ad campaign that referred to the main character's wheelchair as "a prison," which naturally led to handicapped people picketing the theaters. Even if Romero had yet to experience a box office dud, this would have been way too much for even one of his zombie movies to overcome, let alone a character study with only a few death scenes.

But again, in retrospect you can really see why Romero might have been drawn to the material: here is a guy who found himself boxed in, unable to operate the way he was used to (the character was a champion runner who was disabled in an accident). His previous film, Day of the Dead, was the result of a huge compromise regarding the film's budget and rating - he could get a certain amount of money for an R rated movie, or less than half that amount for one that would go out unrated. Either way he was forced to limit his vision (he chose the latter, for the record), something that he didn't have to deal with on the previous Dead films (or his non-zombie '70s titles), and it would only get worse from there on out. Like Jason Beghe's character, who was alive but unable to do almost anything on his own (there's a heartbreaking scene showing how much effort it takes just to try to read a book), Romero found himself in limbo, unable to comfortably work within a studio environment, but also no longer able to secure the funding he needed to properly execute his ideas in the independent world.

The difference, of course, is that Romero continued to fight the good fight in the years after these two films (in between them he directed half of Two Evil Eyes, which was barely released theatrically in the US), trying his damnedest to work within the system only for projects to routinely fall apart. And the time spent on those would cost him other gigs; he wasted two years developing a movie in the '90s, which not only never happened but reportedly cost him the job of directing The Mummy to boot. He was up for other King movies that would ultimately be directed by someone else; in fact, he was set to direct Pet Sematary, which would have solved his problems for a while (assuming it would have had the same box office fortune), but post-production issues on Monkey forced him to bow out, as they had to start filming without him (at least, so he says - according to the IMDb, Pet didn't start shooting until two months after Monkey's release, so someone's wrong). Eventually these sort of frustrations got the better of him; he moved to Canada and made three Dead films practically back to back, none of which came close to living up to the first trilogy (must be a thing with guys named George). Now he's doing a comic for Marvel called, wait for it, Empire of the Dead, and I'm sure there's an ongoing effort to get it made into a feature.

Both Monkey Shines and The Dark Half are about men that are struggling with their abilities and trying to survive in a world that has rejected them in some way, and they also both deal with the hero taking the blame for something that was beyond his control. Romero might have been drawn to their narratives for different reasons all together, but there's no denying that the parallels to his own career make them a lot more interesting than they're given credit for, and, perhaps inadvertently, are his most autobiographical films besides Knightriders. But even if you ignore the thematic parallels to Romero's career, both are imperfect but still very much under-appreciated efforts from our most under-appreciated Master of Horror - it's time both the films and their director got their due.