Until recently, it had been a very long time since I’d last seen Frank Oz’s movie version of stage musical Little Shop of Horrors. The musical, based on a Roger Corman quickie from the 60s (shot in just two days on a set that Corman had booked to use before it was torn down) that’s mostly famous these days for its Jack Nicholson cameo, had been a roaring off-Broadway success in the early 80s – and the movie version of the stage musical arrived a few years later, in 1986.
The tale of down on his luck orphan, Seymour Krelborn, whose discovery of an exotic – but bloodthirsty – plant (named Audrey II, after the co-worker he’s smitten with) could be his ticket to fame, fortune and (most importantly) love, Little Shop of Horrors is rightly hailed as a classic. Indeed, after watching it again, I can confirm that it holds up beautifully, with some still astonishing puppetry and catchy, brilliantly written songs throughout.
There’s a number of star cameos – most notably Steve Martin as a sadistic, abusive dentist (who is an absolute scene stealer with his darkly hilarious song), John Candy as a weeeeeird radio show host and Bill Murray as a masochistic dental patient. The leads are all absolutely wonderful in their roles; Rick Moranis is a brilliant Seymour and Ellen Greene – reprising her role from the stage musical – is an endearingly sweet Audrey (plus, she’s one hell of a singer – which definitely helps). Levi Stubbs – most famous for being a member of Motown group the Four Tops – provides the voice of the bloodthirsty plant, and he’s perfectly cast; mesmerising both with spoken dialogue and in song.
That’s partly because of the incredible Audrey II puppet, which is amazingly expressive. You get the sense that, if the film were made today, it’d likely feature extensive CGI – the fact that Audrey II is present on set means that the actors are properly interacting and reacting to a physical and (when fully grown) very intimidating ‘creature’.
As mentioned, the songs are fantastic. Written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman – who went on to pen songs for Disney in the late 80s and 90s (starting with The Little Mermaid) – they’re an intriguing mix of styles, many of them sung by or with the Greek chorus-esque trio of soul singers (who introduce us to the story and feature prominently throughout). All of the songs are hugely memorable, witty and often very funny; the title song grabs your attention immediately, ‘Suppertime’ is a brilliantly foreboding number, the aforementioned ‘Dentist’ a Steve Martin-powered delight (as dark as it is, subject matter-wise, it’s an upbeat and hilariously staged song) and others such as ‘Grow for Me’, ‘Feed Me’ and ‘Mean Green Mother from Outer Space’ (the latter added in order for the film to become eligible for an Oscar, which it unfortunately didn’t win) being my personal favourites.
There’s an interesting diversion in the theatrical cut of the film from the musical’s original ending; though the film ends on a happier, hopeful note (albeit with a very creature feature-esque sting in the tail), the musical – and the originally shot ending – has a finale that sees Audrey II breed and take over the world, the plants causing chaos on a huge scale. The film, as originally shot, ends with a shot of a triumphantly laughing plant, wrapped around the Statue of Liberty, before another plant bursts through the screen at the audience.
This ending was long sought after by audiences, with the original footage believed to be lost and potentially unsalvageable for many years. The reason for the change is well documented; test audiences absolutely loathed it. Having spent the rest of the movie rooting for Seymour and Audrey (the human one!) to escape their lives of poverty and misery, viewers didn’t react well to seeing them both die and have the plants win. So, despite the millions of dollars already spent on producing the ending – which still looks pretty impressive today, effects-wise – the happier ending was shot and used instead.
I always lamented the fact that we didn’t get the big monster movie style ending, but – having now seen it (it’s available on YouTube and also on some Blu Ray versions of the film) – I’m actually very glad the studio responded to the overwhelmingly reaction they received in the two test screenings they held. After going through so much in the film – orphan Seymour, not being able to find a way out of his downtrodden existence, and Audrey, physically and emotionally abused by her boyfriend – it is satisfying to see them succeed in achieving their dream, however neatly and quickly it wraps up. To go from them realising their love for each other during the song ‘Suddenly Seymour’ – a big showstopping number – to then both dying shortly after feels narratively wrong, let alone emotionally. In the theatrical cut, they get the payoff they deserve – and so does Audrey II. In short, it’s great to see the ending as it was originally intended, but I’m glad that we ended up with the finale we – and the main characters – deserved.
In any case, it’s clear why Little Shop of Horrors remains so beloved, 34 years after the movie was first released. The songs haven’t dated; using a variety of early 60s pop genres – alongside more Broadway-esque numbers – in an 80s movie, has helped to give it a real timeless quality. As mentioned, the creature effects work – at all stages of Audrey II’s growth – is still a phenomenal achievement and the plant is hypnotically expressive in action. Little Shop of Horrors is an absolutely wonderful film and one that I suspect I’ll never tire of.
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