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.
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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.