Director Richard Donner gave us a superhero movie unlike any other. Or that would be the case if he was given free reign with “Superman II.” I will always argue to this day that what Donner could have done might have given us a sequel that no only matched the power of the original but quite possibly be better. However, Alexander and Ilya Salkind never let him finish his movie for the following reasons. During the production of the first movie, Donner ran into some problems with financing and film schedule while supposedly criticizing the producers in interviews around the time of the first movie’s release. On top of that, Marlon Brandon was promised a percentage of the box-office profits making for one expensive cameo if he was ever to be in the follow-up that was meant to be released in 1979.
As a result, the Salkinds got a new director, made heavy rewrites to what was already planned out and sought to make a sequel that was the combination of two worlds. This didn’t sit well with the cast and crew with some even refusing to return for the sequel under protest of Donner’s sacking. Most notable was Gene Hackman despite having all his scenes shot and yet cut down in the final version. It also didn’t help that the new director Richard Lester had to reshoot 51% of the film in order to gain credit for working on the movie. Well, “Superman II” came out in the summer of 1981 and was a box office hit but gained a noted amount of controversy over the dramatic production stories. It wouldn’t be till 2006, Richard Donner would complete his original cut (sort of) after learning all the original negatives for the first and second movie that HE FILMED was a London film vault. Thus, “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” was released to much praise and mixed reception among fans while showing a possible “what could have been” while fans having a hard time trying to place it in its own continuity. So the question begs, what is the better version?
Instead of going gun-ho and doing a compare and contrast, I felt it would be unfair to those who have not seen both versions. Seeing both movies share the same story despite difference in tone, I feel its only just to talk about the story first before going into what works and what doesn’t in a “spoiler-free” manner. Christopher Reeve returns as Superman along with his alter-ego Clark Kent but things get out of hand when his heartthrob Lois Lane figures out that Clark is Superman. As a result, he decides to spend a day off focusing on his romance with the Daily Planet reporter while even consider the temptation of being human giving up his superhero duties.
That all changes when surviving Kryptonian General Zod (Terence Stamp) escapes from a prison known as the Phantom Zone along with two of his accomplices and it doesn’t help they just so happen to be freed near Earth. As they start to take over the American nation (and the world…maybe), Superman now has a choice between being a savior to the world or being human forever despite a planet in the toil and torment of a cruel and militant supervillian.
After seeing “Superman II” a few times (along with its 2006 re-cut), already its slowly becoming one of my favorite sequels and for good reason. It asks would what it be like if our favorite superhero decided to take the day off. Would the world be in peril if he left his hometown alone? Would he be stuck between eternal paradise? And what are the consequences of a superhero gone mortal? To my surprise, every single one of those questions get answered while also digging into Superman’s psyche. Lois Lane maybe a huge responsibility to him but so is the world and it gets tough in the final act (without giving too much away) when both realize how hard it would be to manage a life together would turn out. This is main heart of both cuts and carries through no matter what changers or alterations they have between the two.
The performances are great and possibly better than the first. Christopher Reeve knows Superman has a big task between choosing a life with Lois or be a hero to the world. Instead of being muscle bound, he goes into the weakness of Superman as we seen him attempt a normal life and it shows what happens when such a grand hero goes weak in a modern world. Now reality is in and no longer at superhuman strength. Reeve really brings out the tragedy in the character when he has to make two sacrifices in one blow; the choice of being human while giving up a normal life continuing his normal responsibility. As always, Reeve and Margot Kidder are great together as Clark and Lois Lane but even the sequel develops more of the romance between them when Lois finds out that Clark is the famed caped wonder she dreams of. Now, all is changed and it looks right out of a fairy tale come true.
Gene Hackman also returns as the favorite fast-talking criminal mastermind Lex Luthor as he plans to make a pact with the evil Kryptonians in order to not only destroy Superman but even gain some more land property (“Australia,” he claims proudly with a cigar in his mouth.) Like the first movie, he soaks up and chews every bit of scenery with such delight as he coaxes into Zod about his knowledge for Superman while trying to keep himself alive at every step.
The villainous Kryptonians are also a huge highlight for “Superman II” and prove to be a huge challenge knowing the power they posses matches Superman to a degree. They can fly, shoot heat beams from their eyes and even as much strength as the hero himself. This is a huge problem knowing their powers match when they tear up Metropolis in a memorable and intense climax as a bus full of patrons are tossed around and many neon signs get blown to smithereens in the brawl. Those who accuse of “Man of Steel” for having Superman not save ALL of the people might want to take good note of this movie as even Reeve’s Superman knows he can’t save everyone in Metropolis as debris falls to the streets below yet he tries.
Its overall a really satisfying sequel but here is where the two cuts differ from each other. The theatrical cut goes for a more light tone than the first film while keeping a good bulk of the Donner footage intact. The goofier scenes clash with the intense moments as you almost wish there was a darker sequel along the lines of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Notable highlights include a man on roller skates being flown back by Zod’s super breath, Non (the hulking and strong of the three) getting a “Groot” style personality that is cartoonish and over the top, a bizarre cat and mouse fight at the Fortress of Solitude between Superman and the Kryptonians and that’s just to name a few. When the Richard Lester material was interwoven, there were moments when it did work like a small speech at the end from Lois about how Superman belongs to the world more than her but then you had moments that felt like generic action taken from a 1960s episode of Batman. Its clear the Salkinds wanted a safer vehicle to market and that’s really what it is.
The Richard Donner cut, on the other hand, uses a lot of the footage that Donner originally shot but only used the theatrical cut in places when “gaps” were needed. Again, only 75% of Donner’s film was shot and thus some material was needed to fill in open holes with the narrative. Thankfully, most of the goofy moments are cut but some elements still remain like in the Metropolis fight. But thanks to a little sound re-mixing and tight editing, the brawl is more slick and intense with certain gags removed with different shots or trimmed completely. One scene where Lois tricks Clark into revealing his true identity was never filmed but luckily there existed a screen test of Reeve and Kidder acting the scene out. Some film purists might be distracted by how Reeve wasn’t as muscular at the time and how much Margot Kidder’s hair differs, but I wasn’t distracted too much by it. The staging alone as well as the editing was enough to forgive it. It was also a nice addition to see two actors show a spark of chemistry even before they were hired for their roles!
But the biggest highlight that should go unnoticed is all of Marlon Brando’s footage as Jor-El that was filmed for the sequel is not only restored but really changes the narrative of the story. In the theatrical cut, Jor-El was replaced with Susannah York playing the hollogram of Superman’s mother. While its nice to see the same actress from the first movie reprise such a small role, the focus of the first film was on Superman and his father. This looses a lot of momentum in the theatrical cut as Jor-El’s cryptic prophecy “the son becomes the father and the father becomes the son” never fully pays off. Without spoiling too much, this line now feels complete here and Brando’s performance couldn’t be stronger. To think over 25 years and we would never see such incredible footage surface. This gives the alternate ending to “Little Shop of Horrors” a good run for its money.
“Superman II” is hands down a grand entry. The story alone makes it good enough to recommend as character arcs that were left open in the last film are explored and a greater threat is at play that not only challenges Superman physically but even mentally. Would it be worth it to have a normal life among the people or can he be both Clark and Superman to the end? Arguably, I’d say this is better than the first movie for being darker and more action-packed than the first film.
But it goes back to the original question, which is the better cut and here is my main problem. The theatrical version has a clash between light and dark as one can tell when the camp factor lies and where the serious material the Donner footage lies. But going in not knowing the troubled back story behind the sequel, they probably wouldn’t spot these “inconsistencies in tone” on first watch. But the more I watch, I keep asking myself why can’t it cut back on the camp and cheapness considering the amount of effort the first film had. The Richard Donner Cut is an improvement but it acts as more of a “what if.” As much as I enjoy the new additions and kept appreciating all the changes, its not really an official cut because Donner never completed what was intended as a whole. However, I will be honest and say had Donner complete his original vision, I’m sure we would have had one hell of a sequel and I do admire it for those reasons. But are not completely bad and have their own strengths and weaknesses while still manage to be entertaining. I can’t think of moment when I saw something that was really awful or made me turn off. I’d say watch both and judge for yourself.
Time to cap off the Halloween season with a movie I think really needs to be given a second chance. In fact, it already has. Going back to Clive Barker, he was an interesting man that always too a different approach to horror but in a more fantasy way. Hellraiser could be argued as a Pandora’s Box story but with demons involved. It was his first directing debut and none the less, it was a success when you consider its $14 million gross on a $1 million budget . Clive’s second film was meant to be his break-through feature. But thanks to tons of studio interference and a terrible post-production that left what could of have been the “Star Wars” of horror fantasy became a truncated mess. I’m off course talking about Nightbreed.
The way I discovered this movie is interesting. I was looking at a compilation of Danny Elfman scores and one of them had tracks from the movie. Curious at the title and mystified by the tone of the music, I looked online and my curiosity grew further when I began to learn of its production history and of the film itself. No sooner I would watch that I had no idea what I would be in for. Craig Sheffer plays Aaron Boone, an everyman that has strange dreams of monsters and talks of a place called Midian. The only person who is invested in this is his psychiatrist Philip K. Decker (played surprisingly by famed body horror director David Cronenberg) who listens in to Boone’s talks of a world with monsters.
As it turns out, Midian is really a cemetary but underneath is a world full of beasts and creatures that have been fighting for survival for thousands of years. They are the only remaining kind and wish to be left alone knowing what humanity thinks of them. Boone ends up there after being framed for crimes he didn’t commit but one of the monsters tries to use him as a midnight snack. After bitten, he becomes one of the Nightbreed and learns that he might be the beast’s only last hope. As it turns out, Decker is going around killing people with a button-eyed sack mask with plans to extinguish “breeders” and all sorts of filth. It just so happens that Midian is next on his list.
Thankfully, there is an ally in the form of Boone’s girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) who is trying to find out what is going on with her undead boyfriend. Sure enough, she learns of the world of Midian and at first, she is a little unnerved by the unfriendly creatures. But over time begins to understand why they are like this and tries to help them in the final act. The chemistry between Lori and Boone is close to the standards of most romance stories but I feel its more developed. You get a sense of how much they care for each other and will go through all sorts of Hell to see they end up together in the end. Its a bit standard but its the heart and soul of the film.
The Nightbreed themselves are a unique batch ranging from nightmarish to almost like a surreal piece of art come to life. They are scary but yet uniquely designed. I recall a friend of mine saying they are “a Face/Off wet dream.” And it does. There’s so much make-up work to admire that its puzzling to see why it didn’t get nominated for an Academy Award for Best Make-Up. This was early when CGI was on the rise so its nice to see a lot of prosthetic and practical monsters. My favorite of the batch has to be Narcisse. He’s so unpredictable on the first watch and you just can’t help but love his antics. He’s like the Han Solo of the movie. One minute, he acts bat crazy and then the next minute, he’s ripping his face off to reveal his real form. Hugh Ross’s performance really steals the show and you can tell he’s having fun with this role.
David Cronenberg is also a delight to watch as the villain. Its bizarre to see the director of Videodrome and The Fly remake act in a movie. Many viewers feel that Cronenberg’s acting is not the best but I tend to disagree. That monotone voice and quiet personality I feel adds a lot to the character. He’s a psychiatrist so I expected him to act this way. If he started spewing one-liners like Freddy Kruger or acted like an unstoppable machine like Jason, then I would have problems. This differs from the norm of slasher beasts by having a character that can easily manipulate people while also trying to satisfy his urge to “purify” his own take a perfect world. Having him pinpoint the crime on his own clients I think is a clever idea considering how much sanity they question.
The final third of the movie is where things start to heat up as a group of people that act as the angry mob cliche ride in and attempt to destroy Midian. Its one adrenaline rush of a finale as they blow up the place and gun down the poor monsters. Its gripping and this is where you really feel sorry for the Breed. Its here that Clive Barker wanted something different from the typical monster movies of the past. He wanted a movie where you could root for the creatures. Make them the good guys and have humanity be the true beast. This is an angle I don’t think has been attempted before at the time and doesn’t come off as feeling preachy. Because that is what this movie is. A straight up love letter to monsters and why we love them. This is such an important entry to the fantasy horror genre because we never for once had any sympathetic feelings for something inhuman. That is if you count Bride of Frankenstein, but Nightbreed pushes it further by having these poor ground dwellers wanting nothing more but to live life. No war, no conflict. We start to wish that perhaps some things are best left as they are and wonder just how monstrous we can truly be.
I’d go into deeper detail about why Nightbreed is such a great movie but no review can do it justice. I never even got to talk about how Doug Bradley of Pinhead fame plays the head of the creatures or even the individual monsters like Peloquin and the seductive Shuna Sassi. I never got to talk about how enjoyable over the top the southern sheriff is or the priest Ashberry who keeps questioning his faith. There’s so much to talk about this movie and yet too much to even give away. If you really want one heck of a thrill ride, by all means give this one a good watch.
Now, I should probably talk about the Director’s Cut or else I will never get the chance. First, a quick history lesson. Clive Barker had a certain vision in mind but unfortunately the powers that be at Morgan Creek and test screenings really came down on the final cut. The final result was a very hampered edit that removed key subplots and confusing character arcs. This footage was said to be lost but recently, but in 2009, Mark Miller who co-owned Barker’s production company, found two VHS tapes containing two different workprints of Nightbreed. These two where fabricated into a composite cut called the Cabal Cut which was said to have run at over 150 minutes and played at many conventions.
This sparked much fan interest in a push to get this version to DVD and Shout Factor seized the opportunity. But it gets better. When they started on the restoration project, there was discovered 16 hours of footage from what I heard containing a good bulk of what Clive Barker originally intended and MANY scenes that were removed from the theatrical cut. As you can imagine, this was a dream come true. Not only were fans able to see the original cut but even Clive Barker was able to get his original vision out there. And I’m happy to say, this director’s cut ranks high.
I won’t give too much away behind what was restored as I wish to give new viewers an opportunity to see this movie so I’ll only summarize the important things. The love relationship between Boone and Lori is greatly expanded on as we also get to see their daily lives a bit more. We get a sense they are everyday people instead of generic star crossed loves while learning why Lori won’t give up on her love no matter what. My favorite new addition has to be when Lori belts out a rendition of “Johnny Get Angry” at a live show. Its amusing but also a nice little moment to see Lori really show what kind of girl she is. We also get to spend a lot more time with the Nightbreed as we learn more about their culture and even seen new monsters that were left on the cutting room floor. Its again nice to see so much craft on so many amazing designs while delving into this strange world and its mythology that was only scantly talked about in the theatrical edit.
The most obvious alteration is the entire finale. What felt like a battle feels like an all out war with more violent action scenes and even certain key characters have different fates. I won’t spoiler what goes on but I will say it ends a whole lot better than the cliffhanger they reshot for the other version. Nightbreed ends on a more hopeful message that doesn’t feel like the urge for a sequel is needed. It ends in a way that we can see this as a stand-alone film that is enjoyable and remarkable in its own right. Its a feeling of satisfaction to know that after so much Hell this movie when through that due to the power of its huge cult fanbase where able to make this possible. Hopefully this movie will get a larger audience in future and considering its Limited Edition set from Scream Factor is already sold out, it makes me wonder what else is planned down the road. Time may tell but for now, I couldn’t be happier to say that Clive Barker’s Nightbreed is truly a must see movie for the monster lover in all of us.
This concludes the first annual Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon. I hope you enjoyed my little trip down this massive line of horror films and I can’t wait to do it again next year. But for now, may the tribes of the moon embrace you….
To describe the Evil Dead franchise in one word would have to be cheese. Good, old-fashioned cheese that ages over time to be appreciated by a new generation. Its unlike any other film series that gets gradually different in its sequels even if there is two and one recent film that is both a reboot and remake while having some connection as a continuing entry. While the tone of the series does change within each installment, each one goes from different and fresh ideas while straying away from the uncanny valley of degrading the series like Teenage Mutant Ninjia Turtles or the RoboCop films. Instead, the tone of the film is downgrading but still keeping that enjoyable energy that existed in the first one.
The Evil Dead started as a short film made by Sam Raimi in hopes of expanding it to feature length. It certainly drummed up interest with investors and as a result, we got one of the most important horror films of the genre. Sure the plot is basic but what makes it scary is how the terror progresses. Its the traditional group of college students that go to a cabin in the woods for their spring break. But what they find there is a book called the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis that is said to be the Book of the Dead. As it turns out a professor was trying to analyze it but ended up releasing a gruesome batch of evil spirits upon the woods. Well as you can imagine, these five university fall victim to the demons that lurk in the small house as one by one they get possessed and try to survive till morning.
The center of the movie is a character named Ash played by Bruce Campbell who would later be known for this series and many other films to numerous to name. It was this series that jettisoned his career as a B-movie king of the 1980s and 1990s. Its also interesting to note the journey his character goes through from each film. Here, he is a basic student that is trying to make sense of what’s going on and attempt to stop the evil. We do root for him seeing how big of a leader he becomes near the end when stuff hits the fan.
The biggest highlight are the scares and boy, does it get frightening. I’m tempted to compare how terrifying it is to today’s standards but it basically Diet Coke to Rob Zombie’s movies. Back then, it was really pushing. The gore goes straight to the jugular without being subtle like a pencil to the ankle to one getting molested by a tree. And yes, you heard me right. A character gets groped and….well, it would be too much to describe in words but I think you get the picture. The whole movie is one fest of twisted scenarios that seem like they would come from your deepest nightmares. Sure the movie was shot with a low budget and on 16mm film but the way its executed feels very gritty and brash like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Its like watching a grindhouse movie that’s been washed off with Windex while being dipped in dark chocolate. It doesn’t feel too polished nor too amateurish.
As impressive as this entry is, I often don’t find myself turning to it a lot. Instead, I often jump to its sequel Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn and I think I have a good reason why. Rather than be straight-up horror, it goes for some camp vaule to keep the series fresh and new. And it was in this direction the series would take in being goofy popcorn fun but the good kind. It picks up where the last one ended as Ash is still stuck in the cabin but this time the group of demons labeled as “Deadites.” This entry is split into two as the first half focuses on the Ash character trying to survive the horrors of the cabin while the second half is set on a new character. The professor’s daughter Annie returns with extra pages from the Necronomicon but finds that the whole party is dead with the doctor’s wife resurrected into an ugly hag of a Deadite in the cellar.
Ash has to face new problems now as the two try to stop the evil that lurks in the woods, Ash’s possessed girlfriend and at one point his own hand. I’m not kidding. His own hand gets too evil to the point he has to lob it off with a chainsaw. To keep this from being two gruesome, the fights between Ash and his dismembered hand play off like a Tom and Jerry cartoon as he chases it down with a shotgun but his hand literally keeps getting the “upper hand.” What keeps this from being darker like its predecessor is how it goes for comedy and less horror. There are some scares but its played up for laughs more. For example, there’s one scene where a Deadite’s eyeball is knocked out of its socket and lands into someone’s mouth. On paper, it sounds gross but the execution makes it funny. We embrace its fake strings and how ridiculous it looks to the point we can’t help but laugh at how poorly constructed it looks but how they convince it as being serious makes it funny.
But the one fans known the best has to be Army of Darkness. Of all the entries in the series, I feel this one gets easily recognized a lot when you consider its premise and again, the tone it goes for. Like Evil Dead 2, it goes for horror comedy but its far more campier and obviously Stooge influenced. Again, it picks up from the last installment where Ash somehow gets transported back to the Middle Ages and is hailed as a hero after a Deadite encounter. Yes, apparently the place is amok with Deadites as they try to take over King Arthur’s castle. Ok, he’s known as “Lord” Arthur but why not? Its meant to be a crazy take on A Confederate in King Arthur’s Court with demonic zombies.
Ash demands to go home as his hero stasis goes from every man to reluctant hero. He’s told there is a copy of the Necronomicon in this time period which has the ability to take him back home but in obtaining it, he unleashes the evil spirits within the process. Now, he can’t return home until he puts the demonic beasts to rest and this is where things really get good. The climatic finale is a huge highlight as an evil version of Ash (long story, don’t ask) resurrects an army of decaying corpses and skeletons to take siege on the castle. There’s a wide variety of special effects and stop-motion animation that give it a Ray Harryhausen feel when the animated skeletons ram a log at the front doors or when they are sword fighting. Even though its obvious, the way the actors treat this as something serious makes it enjoyable and it feels like everyone is having a good time without being too self-aware.
There’s a director’s cut of this film with 15 minutes of extra footage that I highly recommend checking out. There’s more character development, more humorous scenes that got cut from the theatrical version, more battle footage I’m surprised to see got trimmed and even an alternate ending. Like Little Shop of Horrors, its bleak in concept but hilarious considering how you know the character Ash is easy to mess something up like the instructions of drinking a potion to get him back home. In the theatrical version, its changed so he gets home safe and still be a hero of his time. I’m honestly fine with both endings but part of me likes the one in the extended version slightly more just for how absurdly funny it is. But I can’t say this version is all around perfect. It goes use alternate takes of certain moments that I feel play down the campy quality. The infamous “Good… bad…I’m the guy with the gun” is swapped with a line that is less effective. There’s at least two instances where it does that surprisingly downplay the silly tone. Its hard to describe why but I feel those moments really add to the comedic quality Army of Darkness goes for.
Now of course, I have to talk about the new film because it has some connections to the old films or at least there will be in the future. The 2013 entry titled “Evil Dead” serves as a reboot and a remake while acting like a new entry. To compare, there was the 2011’s “The Thing” which was meant to be a prequel to John Carpenter’s film but at times felt confused if it was meant to be a remake of the classic or fill in the loose holes that I felt didn’t need to be. “Evil Dead,” however, avoids that trap by going in a fresh direction that pays homage to the series while giving it a new spin. Most critics treat this with a positive to mixed reception but I feel this is a superior entry that doesn’t tarnish what the franchise has done.
Sure it rehashes the teens going to the woods to party but with new twists. Instead, they go there to help one of their friends to quit her drug addiction in hopes of reconciling with old friends. This is a bit of a nitpick but why take someone like that to a desolate place in the woods is beyond me. You could argue they are trying to keep her away from things like social interaction with druggies via in person or by phone but it feels a little off when you think about it too much. Either way, the group comes across the Book of the Dead and this time a wide variety of horrid things in the basement. These are images I will tell you know that still haunt me like animal corpses in the basement or how freaky the Deadite act when they posses a victim. Even the infamous “tree scene” is one-uped with such a subtle yet disgusting concept that is far too frightening to describe here or even talk about.
In short, “Evil Dead” lives up to its advertising moniker as being “the most terrifying film you will ever experience.” It goes straight for the horror and doesn’t hold back. It makes John Carpenter’s The Thing look like a whoopie pie in comparison to the truckload of blood and gore. Its not too bad to the point where it feels like a snuff film. I’m not talking about guts getting torn out or sick stuff like that that. But the violence is so over the top to the point we are more fixed on how realistic it feels and less laughing about the cheesy execution in the effects. Its like a Tom Savini wet dream of special effects. Think George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead but a tad extreme. I am happy to see that all of the special effects are 90% of the time practical. Director Fede Alvarez confirmed in an interview that most of “what you will see is real, which was really demanding… There’s a reason people use CGI; it’s cheaper and faster, I hate that. We researched a lot of magic tricks and illusion tricks.” Its a true testament to what practical effects can do. And I mean a true testament. Everything looks and feels real with we see an arm getting lobbed off with an electric kitchen utensil or a Deadite getting split in half vertically with a chainsaw. Its an insane film but I have a hard time recommending it for others.
And when I mean others, I mean those who really have a weak stomach. What I feel is missing is the humor that made the previous sequels all the more enjoyable. This soaks in its horror and doesn’t step back. From beginning to end, its an intense adrenaline rush that might turn some viewers off. I know from experience seeing I saw this with my sister and mother. While my sister enjoyed how insane the violent scenes where, I felt more bad from my mother who kept looking at her smartphone hoping the gory scenes would end. And it doesn’t help either that she’s not on top of movies like this so I best recommend this one with a warning. For those who can really stomach such much hard violence and like a gory film, you won’t be disappointed. Those with weak stomachs, might want to stick with Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. Even though Evil Dead II can get violent, its never to the point of being gory and is more played for laughs.
Its funny to see a film series where I barley can think of an entry that I honestly disliked. Maybe the magic of this one is just how each entry acts like its own film to the point we treat them different varieties of chips or soda. Even Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness open with a recap while changing things around so viewers can be enlightened on what they missed. It really adds on to the fun factor of each one as they kept pushing the cult campy tone while show just how fun these movies can really become. It shows you can make a horror movie with mindless laughs and fun concepts that I feel are missing from some of today’s movies. All in all, I highly recommend checking out all of them with the exception of the new “Evil Dead” in case you want something different but still keeping with the roots of the series.
And thus, it all comes full circle. If Phantom of the Paradise was a take on the horror classics and The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a parody on the cliches of science fiction B-movies, that leaves with the cheaply stylized Z-movies by Roger Corman. A director that is well known for his cheap and quickly made films that feel more slickly produced than Ed Wood. He’s known for taking such sleazy ideas like a murderous beatnik that puts his victims in his sculptures and making it enjoyable fun. But of the hundreds of movies he’s directed and produced, the crown jewel in his filmography is The Little Shop of Horrors. A story about a nerd in a failing florists shop that comes up with a solution to save it. He crafts a hybrid of a venius fly trap that is so peculiar that it attracts customers. However, the strange flower he crafted feeds on blood for its plant food and by the time it gets bigger, it starts to crave for bigger portions and becomes carnivorous.
What’s more notable is that this movie was filmed in just a matter of two days and is recognizable as having the first on-screen appearance by Jack Nicholson who has a small role as a dentist patient with a masochist mind. The film itself has some charm to it but I feel the final act is where it starts to wear thin. To think such a ridiculous concept could be so entertaining but it gets better. In 1982, Off-Broadway saw the debut of a musical adaption written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. The idea alone of a man-eating plant that sings is probably a strange idea but somehow the two gel really well. And yet, to push it further, the massive success of the play gained a big-screen movie musical adaption And this is probably the one people know more than the other incarnations because of how its so hard not to like and its all around an enjoyable movie.
Rick Moranis is the nerdy Seymour Krelborn who works and lives with his boss Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) in a run-down florist show on Skid Row. The business is so lousy that it becomes close to bankrupt until Seymour brings out a strange plant he got from a China shop. The little fly-trap is named Audrey II, after his co-worker Audrey, and sure enough the place starts blooming big business as customer after customer wonder about that strange plant and make a purchase. Like in the 1960 movie, Audrey II can’t live without blood but when it gets bigger, it develops the suave but brash personality of Levi Stubbs who also voiced the creature. Having a talking blood eating plant voiced by a member of the Four Topps is strange but in a hilarious way. You would think they would get any comedian to voice this thing but to have it be given such a feisty personality is down right genius. In a way, you almost root for villainous vegetable just by how entertaining he gets.
On the other side, there’s a heart to this one. Ellen Green reprises her role as Audrey from the stage performance as a girl that is sweet and kind but has a hard time finding the right boyfriend. She’s hooked up with a sadist dentist played Steve Martin who finds herself in arm casts and bruises to the point she accepts the abuse but yet wishes for something more. This is of course from the mind of Howard Ashman who has a running theme about characters wishing to escape their normal lives and be “somewhere that’s green.” It would carry over in his work with Disney on films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. But what makes Audrey more unique than a fish or a bookworm is how every day mundane Audrey is. She doesn’t live under the sea or even have that much smarts. She’s an ordinary girl with a big heart but makes wrong choices like we do. The chemistry between her and Rick’s performance couldn’t be better. They way they know they love each other yet is cute and innocent.
And of course, I can’t forget Steve Martin’s performance as Orin Scrivello who seeks pleasure in the pain of being a dentist. Its a small role but Steve really owns it. Every time he’s on, he doesn’t skip a beat and really acts like he’s stealing the show. Its Steve Martin at his best. There is really nothing else I can say. One minute he’s punching nurses and talking about how drilling bicuspids are a thrill and then he’s acting like a jerk to his girl Audrey. He’s fun while still a threatening and commanding antagonist that moves the story even if the part is not big. But it still gets played out as a big role. I even had the chance to play the role of the dentist in a high school production and relished every minute of my cruelty. Maybe that’s what makes this role so good is just how Steve doesn’t hold back on being mean. He goes all out.
This was Frank Oz’s second solo directed feature and I remember fondly what Howard Ashman told him in order to understand the tone and shape of the movie. He told Frank that no matter what, it has to be stupid. And perhaps, that’s right. The film has a dumb quality that again reflects the ridiculous nature of the
1960 B-movies but in a good way. The performances of Rick Moranis along with everyone else and the look of Skid Row has this cartoon quality that gives it a nice charm. Its all played for laughs and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Even the songs add on to the entertainment value seeing a good chunk of them come from the stage show. I do agree with Roger Ebert’s thoughts on making this a midnight movie by having people dress up as characters like the dentist and throwing stuff around at the screen. It would have been a perfect fit. The only reason why I can think its not is probably because its too light and not down right dark. Maybe its for the best but someday it would be a treat to see something like that happen. Especially for such a highly entertaining movie like this.
SPOILERS!!!!! STOP HERE IF YOU DON”T WISH TO GO FURTHER AND BE RUINED OF THE ENDING!!!!!
However, the original cut of the movie had an interesting bait and switch at the end. Despite it having some darker elements, the true colors did come in with the conclusion. As originally shot, Audrey II basically eats our stars and thanks to an advertising agency that takes leaf cuttings with plans to see mini-Audrey IIs, the planet very much takes over the world eating people and buildings in sight. This was part of the original play but was more accepted seeing as Frank Oz puts it, ” in a stage play, you kill the leads and they come out for a bow — in a movie, they don’t come out for a bow, they’re dead.” After two disastrous test screenings, it was then realized that such a dark ending wouldn’t work with an audience back then. Thus, a happier ending was shot and its much, darker take was scrapped. For years, it existed on stills for trading cards and production pics in film magazines. For the longest time, this was the only record we had of the original ending.
However, there was a DVD release in 1999 with the cut ending as a bonus feature but presented as a black and white workprint. The DVD was later recalled when producer David Geffen called saying he didn’t like the source Warner Bros. chose and claimed there was a copy of the ending in color. Unfortunately, he didn’t know where it was at the time or supposedly that’s how the story goes. However, 2012 saw the release of the movie on Blu-Ray with a new edit containing the original ending. Rediscovered color footage was found, reconstructed with Frank Oz’s notes and placed in an alternate edit on the new release. Personally, I’m fine with both versions but I feel new viewers might want to see the theatrical cut first before seeing the “Director’s Cut.” I like how close it is to the original finale of the play but it feels a little overblown at times. I seem to appreciate the new ending more for its technical craft and not for narrative purposes. Seeing footage where tons of Audrey IIs destroy New York is a wonder to me thinking I never thought it would exist. I think both endings work but it really depends on what kind of person you are. Do you want Seymour to emerge as a hero or walk out with a message about giving into temptation while seeing our hero succumb to Faust syndrome?
There’s even an even a deleted section of “The Meek Shall Inherit” That got cut where Seymour has a dream sequence as he contemplates keeping Audrey II alive despite knowing what damage will bring. According to Frank Oz, this was cut for length reasons rather than narrative reasons and its a shame seeing it adds value to the original ending that got cut. The idea of Seymour thinking about his choice before signing the contract to fame is a big one and its a shame seeing it was removed. This hasn’t surfaced on DVD but a bootleg of the workprint has surfaced with this scene intact.
Bottom line, no matter what version, Little Shop of Horrors is my personal favorite movie musical. To think such a crazy idea would actually translate in such a humorous and entertaining manner. You also have to give credit for the puppetry work by Jim Henson Creature Shop vetren Lyle Conway and Brian Henson performing one of the puppets during the “Feed Me” sequence. In today’s age, you could make a CGI Audrey II and make it easy. But the effort and craft here in bring a simple play and translating it to the big-screen really pays off. To think on first watch as a kid, I really liked it. But now that I’m older, its grown on me to the point I can’t stop singing the songs or reciting lines. In short, a crowd pleaser all the way.