Friday, July 21, 2017

#2,388. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Directed By: Frank Oz

Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia

Tagline: "Don't feed the plants"

Trivia: "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" (written for this film) is the first Oscar-nominated song to contain profanity

It started, as many things in Hollywood do, with Roger Corman.

It was in 1960 that Corman, along with screenwriter Charles Griffith, devised a little movie about a man-eating plant and the nerdy young florist who took care of it. 

Did I say “little” movie? Make that miniscule; The Little Shop of Horrors was shot in two days, utilizing sets that had been built for another film. Corman is notorious for keeping a watchful eye on a production’s bottom line, but with The Little Shop of Horrors he managed to outdo even himself (the final cost was about $22,000). Not only has this “little” movie become a cult classic; it also featured one of the earliest big-screen appearances of an actor named Jack Nicholson, who, as I understand it, went on to have a decent career (not to mention 12 Academy Award nominations and three Oscars).

For most low-budget pictures, this is where the story usually ends. But, 22 years later, the songwriting duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken would transform this 72-minute black and white flick into an off-off-Broadway musical. After debuting in 1982, Little Shop of Horrors the stage show enjoyed a 5-year run at New York’s Orpheum Theater, and has played to packed houses across the world ever since.

David Geffen, one of the producers of the stage show, then decided to bring the entire project full-circle by making yet another movie titled Little Shop of Horrors, this time turning it into a big-budget musical extravaganza, with stunning special effects, a top-notch cast, direction by Frank Oz (long-time collaborator of Muppeteer Jim Henson and the voice of Yoda in the Star Wars series), and cameos by well-known comic stars such as Jim Belushi, John Candy, and Bill Murray, just to name a few.

And, like all the previous renderings of this “little” story, Geffen’s version was a smash hit, and is a movie I fell instantly in love with the first time I saw it on cable in the late ‘80s.

Seymour (Rick Moranis) is an underpaid employee of Mushnik’s Flower Shop, a tiny store situated in the heart of Skid Row. In an effort to drum up some business, Seymour convinces his boss Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) to put a new flower he’s been cultivating in the front window, a plant so exotic that it’s bound to draw customers. Seymour named this plant (which appeared suddenly during a recent, unexplained solar eclipse) “Audrey II”, in honor of his co-worker Audrey (Ellen Greene), who he’s loved since he first laid eyes on her. Unfortunately for Seymour, Audrey is already dating Orin Scrivello (Steve Martin), a sadistic dentist who treats her like dirt.

Sure enough, “Audrey II” is a big success, and people come from all around just to see it. With business better than ever, Mr. Mushnik orders Seymour to take extra special care of his new plant. But as the lovesick young man will discover, this is no ordinary flower; it's a creature from outer space! Instead of water and sunlight, “Audrey II” needs human blood to survive, and the more it gets, the bigger it grows. After a while, “Audrey II” even starts to talk (voiced by Levi Stubbs), and what it’s telling Seymour to do could land him in some very hot water.

But even if it can help change his life for the better (as "Audrey II" promises), will Seymour actually listen to a talking plant?

One of the strongest attributes of this 1986 comedy / musical is its superior cast. Rick Moranis is flawless as the nebbish Seymour, as is Ellen Greene as Audrey, a role she originated on Broadway. Topping the list, though, is Steve Martin as the psychotic dentist, an over-the-top performance that fits the character to a “T”. 

In addition, director Frank Oz utilizes the “Greek Chorus” (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell) to perfection; along with being backup singers on practically every musical number, this trio pops up occasionally in small roles (street toughs, etc). The star cameos, including Christopher Guest (as a customer), John Candy (a radio DJ) and Bill Murray (a masochistic dental patient), are equally fun, while Motown legend Levi Stubbs provides the voice of “Audrey II”, whose foul-mouthed manipulation of Seymour results in some of the movie’s most entertaining sequences.

And then there’s the music, composed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (who, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, helped restore Disney’s animation department to its former glory with their work on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin). Every single song the duo created for Little Shop of Horrors, from the opening number to "Suddenly Seymour" to "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space", is a classic. 

Rounding out this list of superlatives are the film’s outstanding special effects, which, by bringing an oversized plant so convincingly to life, did their part to make Little Shop of Horrors an unforgettable motion picture experience.

But the story still isn't over...

Like many films that make their way through the Hollywood system, Little Shop of Horrors was initially screened for a test audience, and while they loved the characters, they absolutely hated the original ending, which was lifted directly from the play. Based on their reaction, the producers felt a change was needed, and told director Oz and company to shoot a more upbeat finale.

It’s certainly not the first time such an alteration was forced on a filmmaker, but what made this particular change so heartbreaking was that Richard Conway, supervisor of the movie’s model unit, spent an entire year of his life working on that end scene, putting together a special effects-laden extravaganza that Frank Oz himself called “masterful”. Twelve months dedicated to a single sequence, and nobody would ever see it.

The Little Shop of Horrors blu-ray that I recently purchased has rectified this injustice by restoring the original ending, giving audiences the choice of watching either the theatrical version or the movie that Oz, Ashman, etc. intended all along. 

But while praising the hard work and technology that helped re-assemble this lost footage, Frank Oz issued the following warning in a brief note he penned for the blu-ray release: “Be Prepared. (The ending is) not pretty”.

As someone who believes strongly in the French Auteur Theory, I have always made it a point to watch the director’s cut, regardless of how much or how little it differed from the theatrical release (Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II changed that movie completely, while George Miller’s preferred version of The Road Warrior contains only one additional minute of footage). But with this most recent viewing of Little Shop of Horrors, I made an exception, and watched the theatrical cut instead.

My reason for doing so is simple: I fell in love with this picture when I first saw it all those years ago, and I wanted to re-live that experience one more time. 

The next time I watch Little Shop of Horrors, I’ll check out this director’s cut, and it will undoubtedly change the entire movie for me. So, as if saying goodbye to an old friend, I allowed myself one final encounter with the version I adore.

Is that so wrong?

1 comment:

Dell said...

I also love this movie. Every reason you give for its greatness is right in line with my own thinking. Didn't know about the ending, though. I'm very curious about it, now.