In 1902, W.W. Jacobs, an English author known primarily for his humorous tales about life at sea, published his fourth short-story collection. As its title suggests, most of The Lady Of The Barge’s contents fit comfortably within his maritime oeuvre‚ with one major, legacy-making exception: “The Monkey’s Paw.” The short story endures as one of the most frequently adapted and parodied horror stories of the past century, although it’s difficult to identify one definitive cinematic or televised version. The cautionary tale of a struggling family wishing for a better life lives on in the public consciousness through the sheer quantity, rather than the quality, of its adaptations.
Following the TV premiere of Chiller Films’ take on Jacobs’ story, horror fans can keep waiting for that ultimate retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw.” The creative team behind The Monkey’s Paw is at least familiar enough with the source material to use its major plot elements—the titular talisman, a small-scale wish for financial security, untimely death and horrific resurrection—as the backstory for this new take. But after a brief pre-credits sequence depicting the terrible aftermath of those events, the movie jumps decades ahead to tell the story of the paw’s next owner, New Orleans warehouse worker Jake Tilton (C.J. Thomason). Jake is a man with a go-nowhere job where his awful boss is married to his ex-girlfriend. As if that weren’t sufficient motivation for him to wish for a better life, his mother is hospitalized, dying of cancer while expensive chemotherapy treatments have precious little effect. As setups for horror stories go, this situation is somehow both overly familiar and unnecessarily convoluted, and it requires Thomason to recite a ton of stilted exposition to explain it all. But at least this scenario logically suggests any number of life-improving wishes that the monkey’s paw could then cruelly misinterpret and twist around.
That’s why it’s so bizarre when The Monkey’s Paw short-circuits all of those workable narrative possibilities in favor of a random wish for an awesome car, which then somehow leads to Jake’s drunken work buddy—an overqualified Stephen Lang—being turned into an undead killing machine. Yes, a third of the way through the movie’s 90-minute runtime, The Monkey’s Paw turns into a slasher film. There’s a vague effort to depict this development as a consequence of Jake’s actions, but there’s little functional difference between Lang’s character and a Jason Voorhees or a Michael Myers. Like Jacobs’ original, The Monkey’s Paw never confirms if the talisman is truly magical, leaving just enough wiggle room to claim that its proceedings are merely a series of ghastly coincidences. In the short story, this ambiguity reinforces a central theme: the immutability of fate. Here, such uncertainty comes across as sloppy writing, born of boredom with anything that isn’t Lang’s killing spree.
Like so many previous failed horror movies, The Monkey’s Paw presents characters that are too busy being plot devices to react to the murders unfolding around them. And, as is also depressingly common in this genre, acting like complete assholes is as close as the characters get to expressing recognizable human emotions. The exception here is Lang, who has far more to play as a drunken, quietly tortured rascal than he does as a soulless merchant of death. The actor’s off-kilter performance in the first half-hour adds some much-needed energy to what is otherwise a painfully rote story. Nobody else has much success with their clichéd roles, and veteran character actor Charles S. Dutton is especially wasted as a homicide detective who’s largely irrelevant to the actual story.
The Monkey’s Paw is frequently ridiculous, but the movie is too incoherent to function as unintentional comedy. Lang and director Brett Simmons occasionally appear to recognize just how silly this all is, but even a master of comedic horror like Sam Raimi would struggle to manage the movie’s erratic tonal shifts. The result is an indifferent slasher film teetering uneasily atop a classic horror story. On some meta level, this movie illustrates the fundamental theme of W.W. Jacobs’ story: Trying to improve on what you already have frequently ends in disaster.
Director: Brett Simmons
Starring: Stephen Lang, C.J. Thomason, Corbin Bleu, Charles S. Dutton
Debuts: Friday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Chiller