(1986) Directed by: Frank Oz; Written by Howard Ashman; Based on the musical play by Howard Ashman, which was based on the screenplay by Roger Corman and Charles B. Griffith; Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Levi Stubbs, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, John Candy and Bill Murray
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“…Howard Ashman was very helpful…he suggested not to be subtle. Just to be flat out bold, and start singing immediately, as opposed to trying, in most musicals, where you transition from talk to singing. Here, on purpose, on stage, on the movie, we have them singing flat out immediately, and it’s a wink to the audience saying, ‘We know it’s a musical we’re just gonna go all the way with it.’” – Frank Oz (from DVD commentary)
Whenever someone says they don’t like musicals, Little Shop of Horrors inevitably pops up on most people’s short list of exceptions. It’s not difficult to see why. In some ways, it’s the anti-musical, with its morbid, B-movie premise, based on the off-Broadway stage production, which in turn was based off the quickie Roger Corman comedy/horror film from 1960.* The core story remains intact: A young nebbish toiling away in a skid row flower shop inadvertently stumbles upon a plant with an unusual appetite. He nurtures the sickly flora to health, but before he knows it, it’s the plant that’s controlling him, not the other way around. Budgeted at a relatively modest $25 million,** director Frank Oz’s version of the film was substantially more elaborate than the source material, with the six-month shoot taking place on the cavernous 007 sound stage at Pinewood Studios.
* Fun Fact #1: I’m not counting the 1973 pseudo-remake/softcore parody, Please Don’t Eat My Mother.
** Fun Fact #2: Producer David Geffen originally envisioned Little Shop of Horrors as a low budget (around $6 million) production, with Steven Spielberg executive producing and Martin Scorsese directing.
Rick Moranis was perfectly cast as Seymour Krelborn, the klutzy florist who becomes an unwilling accomplice to the monster plant’s murderous diet. Ellen Greene excels (in a role she originated on the London stage) as Seymour’s ditzy-but-big-hearted co-worker Audrey. Vincent Gardenia amuses as their sarcastic, penny pinching boss Mr. Mushnik (spelled “Mushnick” in the Corman film). Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks and Tisha Campbell-Martin, respectively) serve as a musical version of a Greek chorus, our tour guides through Seymour’s skid row neighborhood. Levi Stubbs from The Four Tops lends his amazing vocal talents for the enormous carnivorous plant, Audrey II. The plant itself,** designed by Lyle Conway, appears in four different sizes, with the final form requiring a crew of up to 60 individuals to operate.
* Fun Fact #3: Before Greene was (wisely) selected, the studio considered Barbra Streisand and Cyndi Lauper for the role of Audrey.
** Fun Fact #4: In his DVD commentary, Oz explained that three sets were employed to create the illusion of Audrey II singing and moving: one with human actors, one specifically with the plant, and another one for special effects. Moranis alone was shot in the standard 24 fps, but due to the limitations of working with foam rubber, scenes with Audrey II were shot in 16 fps and sped up. Likewise, when the human actors appeared together with Audrey II, they had to act out their scenes very slowly, to match the slower frame rate.
As good as the leads are, many of the smaller roles almost steal the show, with all at the top of their comedic game. John Candy, who ad-libbed his dialogue, appears as Wink Wilkerson, the manic host of a radio show focusing on weird things. Steve Martin plays the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello like a sociopathic Elvis. He finds his match in a masochistic patient played by Bill Murray (taking over the role from Jack Nicholson in the original film), also ad-libbing his lines. The movie also features fun cameos by Christopher Guest and Jim Belushi.
A musical is only as strong as its songs, but thanks to the songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast), Little Shop of Horrors is more than up to the task. “Skid Row (Downtown)” is an early standout, conveying the desperation of Seymour and Audrey’s living conditions. “Somewhere That’s Green” is Audrey’s ode to suburban life that jumped off the pages of Better Homes and Gardens, replete with Tupperware parties and eating TV dinners with her imaginary family (including kids that are carbon copies of their parents). “Dentist!” is Orin Scrivello’s tribute to sadism. With the show-stopping (Oscar-nominated) “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” Audrey II reveals his true intentions.
(Spoiler Alert) The “Director’s Cut” Blu-ray recreates, in a rough form, what preview audiences experienced, and much to Oz’s dismay, rejected. As originally planned, the film remained true to the stage production, as well as, the original movie. Unfortunately for Oz and a team of effects people who worked on the original ending, preview audiences in San Jose and Los Angeles didn’t like the idea that Seymour and Audrey were killed off, and the plant prevailed. In the end, the original ending was scrapped, in favor of something more audience-pleasing. Admittedly, seeing this different version, after the revised ending I’ve known and loved all these years, was a hard pill to swallow. I’m glad we can finally experience the film, more or less, as it was intended, but it’s a complete, and not entirely comfortable, shift in tone. According to Oz: “…when the plant kills Seymour and Audrey on stage, the actors afterwards take a bow. The difference is in movies they don’t take a bow. They’re gone and so the audience lost the people they loved, as opposed to the theater audience where they knew the two people who played Audrey and Seymour were still alive.” (excerpt from 2012 Entertainment Weekly interview, “Little Shop of Horrors: A Q&A with Frank Oz”)
Little Shop of Horrors is one of those uncommon instances where the new version improves upon the source material. Not to denigrate the Corman movie, which is charming in its own right, but the 1986 film adds a level of pathos not present in the original. Despite being a multimillion dollar production, Oz and writer Howard Ashman stay true to its humble origins. The combination of infectious songs, funny gags, likeable leads, and a great monster add up to an irresistible viewing experience. If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for? If you have, see it again.