A most unlikely Hollywood musical from the eighties that attempts to lighten up the dark and mean-spirited subject matter bequeathed by its forebears, the original LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS B-movie and subsequent stage musical, whose dark ending is replicated in the Director’s Cut DVD of the present film. Needless to say, it’s that version I recommend you see!
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS began as a Roger Corman directed 1960 black-and-white cheapie, famous for the fact that it was shot in a whopping two days. The film was the basis for a popular off-Broadway musical by Howard Ashman, and then, inevitably, a big budget Hollywood movie in 1986. That movie was produced by David Geffen and directed by Jim Henson acolyte Frank Oz (it was initially supposed to have been produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Martin Scorsese), who at the time was best known as the voices of Miss Piggy, Yoda and many other beloved characters, and also the director of THE DARK CRYSTAL and THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN.
The movie, which replicated the musical’s book and songs, was a modest hit, but far from the mega-blockbuster Geffen and Warner Bros. were hoping for. One problem was the bland happy ending, which was different from those of the Corman film and stage production. Oz included the much darker original ending as an extra on the LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS 2000 DVD release, but that DVD was quickly discontinued, reportedly on the orders of Geffen himself. Thus copies of that original DVD became highly sought-after collectors’ items, at least until 2012, when the director’s cut was finally released with the original coda intact.
Rick Moranis plays Seymour Krelborn, a nerd who works in a skid row flower shop run by the unpleasant Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia), who provides Seymour with room, board and employment. Also employed by Mushnik is the seductive blonde Audrey (Ellen Greene). Seymour is in love with Audrey, but she’s going out with a psychotic dentist.
One day during a total eclipse of the sun Seymour finds a weird plant. He takes it back to the flower shop and puts it in the window, where it immediately attracts peoples’ attention. Soon business is booming, but Audrey II (as Seymour christens the plant) refuses to grow—until one day Seymour cuts a finger and drips blood into the plant’s mouth-like opening. Turns out Audrey II likes blood, and Seymour cuts all his fingers to provide it.
Unfortunately Seymour is obliged to provide the red stuff in much greater quantities for Audrey II. He feeds the plant the body parts of Audrey’s dentist boyfriend, who dies after strapping a laughing gas mask to his face that he can’t remove. The next victim is Seymour’s boss Mushnik, who gets a little close to the plant’s mouth one night.
In a final outrage the plant, who’s now the size of a car and can talk, lures Audrey to the store and nearly devours her. Seymour rescues her and destroys the plant, after which he and Audrey live happily ever after then is shocked when Audrey dies in his arms. He feeds her to the plant—thus providing the “someplace that’s green” Audrey so desired—and is then devoured himself. From there Audrey II reproduces, and the plant and its equally insatiable offspring embark on a rampage of destruction through NYC.
The helming by Frank Oz isn’t bad, but one can’t help but wonder how this film’s initial director Martin Scorsese might have handled the material. In Oz’s hands it’s a fairly entertaining but synthetic and self-consciously B-movie-ish film set amid disconcertingly clean and orderly skid row sets, with highly exaggerated, histrionic performances.
Of the performers Ellen Greene, recreating her role in the Broadway production, fares best—and no surprise, as out of the lead actors she’s the only real singer. Also noteworthy are Tichina Arnold, Tisha Campbell and Michelle Weeks as the Supremes-inspired Greek chorus, they being the only black faces we see, and also the most spirited crooners. Of the non-singers Bill Murray does a memorable job improving his way through the role of the masochistic dental patient played by Jack Nicholson in the Corman film (a character that for some reason was excised from the stage version).
Where Frank Oz really distinguishes himself is in the special effects. The film, quite simply, contains some of the finest animatronics you’ll see in any movie. The Audrey II is a amazing creation, with vocals by The Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs that the plant sings—frequently in close-up—in the “I’m a Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” number, which was written expressly for the film.
It’s the director’s cut DVD version that best showcases the film’s virtues. It isn’t without problems, but its conclusion has a much greater emotional impact than the original, rather bland happy ending (which featured a cameo by Jim Belushi, who isn’t seen at all in the director’s cut version). It also provides an excellent showcase for the special effects technicians in a GODZILLA-inspired orgy of destruction, set to the song “Don’t Feed the Plant,” which concluded the LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS stage version but wasn’t heard in the film’s original ending.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
Director: Frank Oz
Producer: David Geffen
Screenplay: Howard Ashman
(Based on the stage play by Howard Ashman)
Cinematography: Robert Paynter
Editing: John Jympson
Cast: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Paul Dooley, John Candy, Christopher Guest, Jim Belushi, Tisha Campbell, Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks