The Monkey’s Paw (2013)

Rating: B

Dir: Brett Simmons
Star: C.J. Thomason, Stephen Lang, Michelle Pierce, Charles S. Dutton

This is based on one of the great horror short stories of all time, written in 1902 by W.W. Jacobs (for some reason, I was initially thinking M.R. James). As such, the key issue is, how do you bring something fresh to such a well-known work, adapted or parodied in everything from The Simpson to The Monkees? This maintains the same central concept of a relic granting three wishes. The first establishes the basic idea, and the second is spent to undo the results of the first by recalling someone from the grave. However, this makes things worse, and the third then needs to be used, to avoid complete disaster. It’s the details where the script finds new ground, and this plays almost as a sequel to the original story.

The new recipient of the paw is Jake Tilton (Thomason), a blue-collar worker, and his first wish is for a fast car. Driving in it with workmate Tony Cobb (Lang), he ploughs into a tree, and Cobb is killed. In line with the story, Tilton wishes Cobb back to life, and tosses the paw away, only to discover rapidly that the returned Cobb is missing his soul. And there are not many worse things to have after you, than a psychopathic zombie who believes you still have a wish he can take. This Chiller production was a pleasant surprise: I was bracing myself for something potentially a step or two up from those three dreaded words, “SyFy Original Movie” in terms of quality. But this is more than acceptable entertainment, largely down to the solid performances.

Lang, best known as the chief villain from Avatar, is asked for rather more in the way of acting here, and is excellent: it’d be easy to make Cobb simply a monster, yet Lang deliver something with a hint of another classic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to it. Thomason makes for a likeable hero, and between them, the leads help paper over some elements that require rather too much suspension of disbelief, e.g. Tilton not using the third wish at the first opportunity, instead saving this for when it’s most dramatically appropriate. The rest of the production is also very respectable, with effective location work in and around Louisiana (apparently a recent hot-spot for the genre, as in American Horror Story: Coven), and a couple of good kills – one involving an industrial press was particularly well-esecuted.

Of course, you do have to bear in mind that the ultimate destination for this is cable TV, so that means the more exploitative elements are obviously limited: no nudity, language which isn’t exactly convincingly blue-collar, and the gore isn’t painting the walls. However, this restraint is not inappropriate considering the source material is over 110 years old. If you’re looking for something to watch as the winter nights draw in, with a mug of cocoa, this is an effective and impressive, if small-scale, piece of work.