Paying due homage to a deliciously dark treat with horror and comedy in abundance
I must admit, I’ve never been the biggest fan of musicals. I appreciate them, but I’m not exactly first in line when Hollywood rolls out the red carpet for its latest high-kicking blockbuster. I’m yet to see Chicago, Moulin Rouge, Dream Girls, Mamma Mia. I even managed to avoid the once-ubiquitous Frozen, (though if I ever decide to sit through any of those listed it will probably be the latter). I grew up in a household who adored golden age musicals, so I’m no stranger to the tapdancing artistry of Fred Astaire, the Technicolor wonderment of The Wizard of Oz, even the proto-lesbian charm of Calamity Jane. With its lavish productions, feelgood compositions and colourful escapism, the musical was a bastion of comfort for those struggling through the great depression and a period of post-war poverty, but it was all just a little before my time.
This may shock you, but there are musicals that I actually dig; some I even love. I was fortunate enough to experience Disney’s second golden age through a child’s eyes, and I absolutely adore their 90s run, particularly the Robin Williams-led bundle of fun Aladdin and the choreographed wonder that is Beauty and the Beast, which for my money is still the company’s finest hand-drawn achievement. There is even a place in my heart for musicals released before my time. The original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is still a kooky, heart-warming slice of brilliance. Grease, thanks in large part to the super-cool John Travolta and some Bee Gees-inspired magic, is always a blast. Then there’s Carol Reed’s irresistible reimagining of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Oliver!, an ensemble wonder with so much heart and sadness it will always make my Christmas films list. But if there is one defining exception to my general musical apathy, it’s the deliciously dark Little Shops of Horrors, which is not only my favourite musical, but one of my absolute favourite movies. Period.
Just like its bold and brilliant alien antagonist, Little Shop of Horrors seemed to come out of nowhere, at least for a kid my age. Despite the genre’s waning popularity during the 1970s, a decade of realism and exploitation that rendered the musical passé, this was something totally and utterly unique, a seriously black comedy that defied all expectations of what the genre represented in my rebellious mind. Musicals were still very much my enemy, but I never regarded Little Shop of Horrors as a musical per se. In my eyes, musicals were jolly singalongs that waltzed with the outmoded idealism of a time that was very much alien to me, a genre representative of an era when folk dressed and spoke differently, when people had different values and beliefs. I wasn’t able to articulate as much, but times had most certainly changed. Excruciatingly moral, early 20th century film was as dead as the Charleston, and I was very much an 80s kid.
Ironically, Little Shops of Horrors takes place in the early 1960s, and, due mainly to the fact that the movie is a reimagining of Roger Corman’s 1960, non-musical farce The Little Shop of Horrors, very much redolent of the 1950s. 1986’s wildly colourful, surprisingly grim remake may have been the most unique experience of my young life, but its origins were long and storied. Corman’s version was supposedly inspired by author John Collier’s peculiar, man-eating plant short ‘Green Thoughts’ (1932). It’s also been suggested that Corman took influence from sci-fi innovator Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Reluctant Orchid’, which in turn was inspired by the H.G. Wells short ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’, but despite its almost like-for-like plot and blackly comic elements, Frank Oz’ Little Shop of Horrors is a very different animal, a dazzlingly macabre silver screen adaptation of Howard Ashman’s critically acclaimed, off-Broadway production, with music by composer Alan Menker. Ashman, who would also pen the movie’s screenplay, would later collaborate with Menker on several Disney productions, including 1989’s The Little Mermaid and the aforementioned Beauty and the Beast (1991), helping forge one of the most celebrated periods in the company’s history. Thanks to their bold and brilliant contributions, Little Shop of Horrors breathes the same air.
Audrey II: Feed me!
Seymour: Does it have to be human?
Audrey II: Feed me!
Seymour: Does it have to be mine?
Audrey II: Feeeed me!
The stage show itself has quite the history, beginning all the way back in 1982, with a dazzling UK tour as recent as 2016. Its initial, month-long, off-off-Broadway run at the WPA Theatre on 23rd Street was quickly promoted to the Orpheum Theatre in Manhattan’s East Village, where it received rave reviews and a plethora of awards, including the 1982–1983 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and the Outer Critics Circle Award. The only reason it didn’t receive that year’s prestigious Tony Award can likely be attributed to the fact that it wasn’t a Broadway production and didn’t qualify for a nomination.
That initial production lasted for an incredible 5 years, becoming the third longest-running musical with a staggering 2,209 performances and the third highest-grossing in off-Broadway history. Little Shop of Horrors proved just as popular on London’s West End, running for an equally impressive 813 performances between October 12, 1983 and October 5, 1985, even bagging the 1983 Evening Standard Award for Best Musical, with further notable runs in Australia and Canada.
Little Shop of Horrors quickly caught the attention of Hollywood’s best and most influential. Musicals would experience something of a resurgence during the early 1980s, but returns had been somewhat hit and miss. 1980 saw the release of three major commercial hits in Alan Parker’s teen musical drama Fame ($42,000,000 from $8,500,000), John Landis’ Saturday Night Live spin-off The Blues Brothers ($115,200,000 from $30,000,000), and Robert Altman’s Popeye, a Disney-come-to-life that wowed critics and managed a healthy return of $60,000,000 from $20,000,000, further bolstering the musical’s comeback status. Both movies brought a sense of modernity to the genre, as did Robert Greenwald’s postmodern disaster Xanadu, which not only bombed at the box office, but also resulted in the founding of the infamous Golden Raspberry Awards, an annual event that recognized the worst films of the year thereafter. Quite the feat!
With the rise of MTV, the genre moved even further away from tradition, films such as Albert Magnol’s 1984 rock musical Purple Rain, a chic, pop culture drama starring musical enigma Prince, basically platforms to sell records. More popular with teenagers was a new wave of ‘dance films’ such as Flashdance, Footloose and Dirty Dancing, which ditched original, content-specific musical numbers for a plethora of outsourced pop hits and MTV aesthetics. This was more in-tune with a consumer generation unconcerned with the fanciful traditions of yore. The other big Broadway hit to land itself a silver screen adaptation, 1983’s Annie, did hugely disappointing numbers domestically, managing only $57,000,000 on a budget of $50,000,000. As the box office showed, the traditional musical was pretty much finished as a dependable mega bucks attraction.
None of this was a deterrent for those interested in developing Little Shop of Horrors for the silver screen. Though a traditional musical in both form and presentation, the stage play was very much an 80s production in sentiment, its cynical, downbeat narrative and send-up of plastic suburban ideals a far cry from those cutesy bygone productions. To begin with, Martin Scorsese, whose intention was to shoot the film in 3-D, was scheduled to direct, with the almost ubiquitous Steven Spielberg set to produce, and anything with Spielberg’s name attached to it during the mid-1980s was set to be a sure-fire hit. In line with the MTV revolution, the studio was determined to cast pop star Cyndi Lauper as Audrey, but a legal wrangle with the original film’s screenwriter, Charles B. Griffith, brought production to a stuttering halt.
Oz would study the thematic construction of the off-Broadway show, restructuring the original script to forge what I consider the most perfect hybrid of stage and screen ever achieved, a transparently rendered Hollywood throwback filmed on the Albert R. Broccoli 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios in England. Oz, who initially rejected the project, wasn’t exactly short on star power, either. Little Shop of Horrors is blessed with an incredible ensemble of some of the era’s most inspired comedy actors. The only face who doesn’t immediately jump out is that of Ellen Greene, a stage actress who had owned the role of Audrey during the original play’s tireless run. Casting her was a bit of a struggle, since producer David Geffen was intent on casting a star, even after Lauper had shunned his advances, but Oz was delighted to finally land his leading lady.
I have a lot of respect for the people who started the project and [Ellen Greene] was the one member of the cast who I felt was so good that [she’d be] fantastic on film,” Oz would explain. “So David allowed me to have a screen test with her and Rick Moranis in Los Angeles… so we tested her and I showed it to David and hoped to sell him on her, and I was very happy we got her. She’s amazing. I couldn’t imagine any other Audrey, really. She nailed that part for four years Off Broadway.”
Greene brings an irresistible burst of bright lights majesty to proceedings, particularly with her astonishingly heartfelt rendition of ‘Suddenly Seymour’, a touching ode to isolation, longing and the prospect of true love that soars through the guttered rubble like a single white rose. Audrey is such a fragile, tragic figure, the only pure entity in the entire picture, and it would have been much worse for her if not for the disapproval of test audiences yearning for a happy ending beneath the almost ceaseless cynicism, something we will get to shortly. Greene is a colossal presence amid such a formidable, all-star cast, the silken bow that ties the stage and screen together. Her ability to bring genuine, raw emotion to a ditzy, helium-induced stereotype is nothing short of incredible.
Audrey has no place in the world that Little Shop of Horrors inhabits. In fact, it’s hard to recall a film so mired in misery and oppression that manages to inspire such laughter and merriment, and what better way to achieve that than to incorporate early Motown, a genre that grew out of misery and oppression with a dignity and warmth that was, and still is, unprecedented in mainstream music. It is that sound, juxtaposed with cynical 80s sentiments, that makes Little Shop of Horrors such a postmodern treat. The tone derived from a group of soul sisters harmoniously foreshadowing arguably the most sinister and ill-fated narrative the genre has ever known is nothing short of inspired, rousing a peculiar sense of joy that transcends traditional gallows humour to become so much more.
The tale of a put-upon store assistant who happens upon a peculiar plant life that promises to reverse his fortunes in return for human blood, Little Shop of Horrors is full of wretched characters with wretched intentions, giving us a skid row environment of emotional parasites who almost justify our literal bloodsucker’s selfish acts of carnal decadence. The deeply sinister Audrey II, whose transformation from cutesy curio to flamboyant devourer of human flesh is just delightful, treats humans like cattle, approaching events with a sadistic relish that is utterly inhumane, but his human counterparts aren’t far behind in terms of heartless immorality. If we’re being honest, they deserve everything they get, and perhaps a just little bit more.
There’s hardly a character worthy of our sympathy in Little Shop of Horrors. Even the distinctly Faustian Seymour, a seemingly harmless creature forced into barely redeemable acts of savagery, falls headlong into the fiery pits of wickedness, reduced to dismembering corpses in his quest to keep Audrey II’s bombastic brute at bay. There isn’t an actor in the world capable of portraying the sad, pathetic dweeb like Rick Moranis. His wimpy physique, sad sack demeanour and a complete absence of guile should, and could in the hands of a lesser presence, inspire derision, but his total lack of heroism is so easy to get behind, and Little Shop of Horrors understands and exploits that so well. For me, it’s his most memorable comedic performance from a whole plethora of them.
Seymour is an orphan living under the manipulative rule of miserly curmudgeon and store owner Mr. Mushnik, another shit who treats his convenient adoptee like a poor house worker in a Charles Dickens novel, offering him, as Moranis croons during the delightfully downtrodden ‘Skid Row (Downtown)’ “shelter, a bed, crust of bread and a job,” though he may be overselling it a little, particularly the mould-ridden basement he calls home and the diseased mattress where he lays his head at night. In Seymour, Mushnik has forged a magnet for manipulation. He wants a slave, plain and simple, and the poor sucker he snared off the unforgiving streets is the perfect rube, a man-boy so spineless he barely recognises he’s being used.
Mr. Mushnik: [to Seymour] You love her madly, don’t you, schmuck?
That’s where Audrey II comes in. To begin with, the barely sentient sapling provides some much-needed companionship, becoming a pet that Seymour purges his pent-up affections on. A bond is formed that graduates to a kind of blood brotherhood when the astonished store assistant accidentally snags his finger and discovers the plant’s peculiar nutritional needs, but as Audrey II grows so does his bombastic personality and super vindictive ways, the kind that make Mushnik seem like a rank amateur. For a while, the plant presents itself as Seymour’s friend and saviour, which isn’t too difficult considering his hopeless predicament, but convincing his provider that murder is in both their best interests comes just as naturally, and it isn’t long before Seymour is waist-deep in ethical compost.
Worse for Seymour is that the love of his life is dating, as Audrey admits herself in the beautifully ironic, yet deeply touching ‘Somewhere that’s Green’, a domineering ‘semi-sadist’, though when Steve Martin’s side-splitting miscreant Orin Scrivello, DDS bursts onto the scene, you wonder exactly where the ‘semi’ in that description came from. Scrivello is a miscreant of the highest order, a nitrous-oxide addicted, feeder on human misery who threatens to steal the show during his eyewatering rendition of “Dentist!”, a scene I could watch on repeat without ever tiring of. In terms of pure physical comedy, very few live up to peak Steve Martin, and he’s absolutely in his element here, delivering a cross between Dennis Hopper’s sexual Blue Velvet deviant, Frank Booth, and a high-energy Elvis Presley impersonator who is quite literally bad to the bone.
Martin had significant creative input when crafting the character, particularly for the aforementioned ‘Dentist!’ scene, which sees Scrivello arrive at work clad in full leather, seamlessly stepping off his still-moving bike to trigger a truly spellbinding physical performance. The deliriously animated Scrivello bursts into the waiting room like a comedic tsunami, punching a nurse out cold and twisting the head off a little girl’s doll before descending upon his first patient, the last part the actor’s own suggestion. So engaged in the role was Martin that he initially suggested laying out the nurse with a motorcycle helmet, but the punch is so unequivocally on the nose, a weapon just wasn’t necessary. Scrivello is a pure bastard. He doesn’t hide his intentions; there are no bones about him whatsoever. Your time in his chair will be pure, unadulterated torture, his nostrils flaring at the very idea of dishing out the pain.
It’s those comedic eurekas that make the character such a joy, like the moment when Scrivello knees a preteen patient in the gut before going to work with an array of razor sharp implements. As someone with a dentist phobia, some of those images and sounds, like the grotesquely intimate moment from inside the patient’s mouth, are hell on Earth, and Martin plays a superlative devil. When he later meets his match in Bill Murray’s unquenchable masochist, Arthur Denton, a part the actor completely ad-libbed, the film achieves collaborative gold with two of the genre’s true greats. It’s so satisfying to witness such a smug bully succumb to his worst nightmare ― a creature so in love with pain it completely emasculates Scrivello. For a moment you almost feel pity for his waning vigour.
Of Martin’s importance to the role, Oz would explain, “At the time, there was still leftover remnants of Fonzie from Happy Days [who the stage character was based on], and I remember Steve saying, ‘Look, I just don’t want to do Fonzie.’ And I said, ‘No problem. You do whatever you want.’ Steve’s a genius… the character was always this sadistic dentist who rode a motorcycle and wore black leather. That’s not original Steve Martin. What’s original Steve is the addition of the Elvis stuff… I remember when he sees the plant the first time. There was the first (take), the second and then he ended with, ‘It’s biiggg.’ That cracked me up then, it still cracks me up.”
As inspired as Martin is, and despite a mouthwatering who’s who of 80s tomfoolery that includes a typically animated John Candy as an overbearing disc jockey, Jim Belushi as a shyster marketing exec looking to poach Audrey II for worldwide distribution, and Christopher Guest as the shop’s very first customer, the real star of the show is the unforgettable Audrey II, both the technical and design aspects that animated the creature and the left-field voice actor who brought it so indelibly to life.
Orin: [singing] When I was younger, just a bad little kid/My mama noticed funny things I did/Like shooting puppies with a BB gun/I’d poison guppies, and when I was done/I’d find a pussycat and bash in its head/That’s when my mama said…
Crystal, Ronette, Chiffon: What did she say?
Orin: She said, “My boy, I think someday/You’ll find a way/To make your natural tendencies pay/You’ll be a dentist!/You have a talent for causing things pain/Son, be a dentist/People will pay you to be inhumane/Your temperament’s wrong for the priesthood/And teaching would suit you sill less/Son, be a dentist/You’ll be a success!”
The version of Audrey II created for Little Shop of Horrors wasn’t your typical puppet, requiring a process that came with its fair share of problems. The main issue was realism, something that was hampered by the crew’s inability to operate at a convincing enough speed. After reviewing the test footage, they realised that Audrey II looked more lifelike when the footage was played backwards or at a faster rate. By filming the puppet at a reduced speed of 12 to 16 frames per second, the animation appeared faster when played at a normal rate. Actors were therefore forced to pantomime and lip sync in slow motion whenever they appeared onscreen with the animated plant, which meant frequent screen cuts were used to save time. Voices were then reinserted in post-production, Stubbs’ recordings filtered through a harmonizer in order to sound coherent. Due to Audrey II’s various stages of growth, six different versions of the puppet were created, three different versions of Mushnik’s shop constructed to allow two units to work with different sized plants simultaneously. The Audrey II’s were rather high maintenance too, each variation requiring up to three hours of restoration at the end of every day’s shooting.
Despite the hard-earned visuals we were ultimately blessed with, without its star portrayer, Audrey II was still very much a colourful shell in need of some added magic, and magic they would find. The plant’s indomitable rise to vocal power, from quietly sinister soul crooner to boisterous reveller in human suffering, is truly awe-inspiring. The dead-on physical animation plays a big part, but the casting of Four Tops legend Levi Stubbs was the film’s most inspired decision. Even with those famous faces, and I’m talking some of the industry’s finest in their absolute pomp here, it is Stubbs’ beacon of vivacious mischief that truly sets the production ablaze.
Stubbs gives us the same warmth and fire that burns in the sumptuous, emotionally dizzying realms of Motown, but juxtaposed with pure, unadulterated malevolence it grows into something else entirely, a wicked comedic variation that makes the audience feel wicked for embracing it so wholeheartedly. We know we shouldn’t be laughing at such a vindictive creature, but it’s so liberating to disregard moral convention, to howl in horror at the absolute temerity of Stubbs’ bold and brazen beast.
The film’s most memorable number, ‘Mean Green Mother from Outer Space’, a joyously chaotic rabble-rouser boosted by the plant’s gloriously mischievous offspring, epitomises the singer’s ebullient genius. Stubbs puts his heart and soul into the delectably monstrous Audrey II. You feel every sordid vibration, saviour every hubristic vibrato. If I was the devil intent on tempting someone into something transparently wicked, it would be Stubbs’ voice I’d assume. The man is simply irresistible.
Even stripped of its comical embellishments and unique presentation, Little Shop of Horrors is a wonderful genre piece in the traditional sense. The musical numbers offer such a rewarding cacophony of emotions, all of it delivered with ironic, offbeat panache. There’s sadness, heartache, regret, fear, self-doubt, hopelessness, but also desire, aspiration, longing, self-realisation, hope and salvation ― at least in the theatrical version most of you are probably familiar with.
To say I was astonished after unwittingly stumbling upon the 2012 Director’s Cut after all these years is a gross understatement. I’d seen this movie so many times I knew it scene-for-scene, probably word-for-word at one stage in my life, all the way up to that delightfully fitting twist ending. The theatrical cut sees the nefarious Audrey II and his giggling minions electrocuted to death. The plant’s demise gives way to our protagonist’s triumphant emergence from the smoke-strewn rubble of the now-dilapidated flower store, an orchestral reprise of ‘Suddenly Seymour’ whisking us to a white picket fence suburbia and the fairy-tale ending he and Audrey had always longed for, the caveat being that a grinning mini Audrey II is growing in the recesses of their picture book garden.
I always found this to be an inspired conclusion. After so much despotism, persecution and downright cruelty, the film’s eternally beleaguered pair deserved the 50s postcard ending, and the whole thing is so overtly maudlin that the film doesn’t jeopardise its dark spirit. It’s all so perfect in filmic terms. That’s not to say I didn’t like the finale of the Director’s Cut, dubbed the ‘everybody dies’ version, which stayed true to the original theatrical production with an absolutely gobsmacking push beyond the realms of mere wickedness, slitting its figurative wrists and falling straight off a cliff.
Audrey II: Tough titty!
Seymour: You watch your language!
Audrey II: Aw cut the crap and bring on the meat!
It’s a bit much for a mainstream audience, but dark, dystopian sci-fi has always been my bag, and for that reason I absolutely loved Audrey II’s colossal rise to world domination, a whole colony of man-eating plants embracing Roman Empire levels of decadence in scenes redolent of those gloriously kitsch monster movies of yore. It’s all undertaken with such gleeful malevolence that it doesn’t feel downbeat when the credits role. It’s not as fulfilling in an emotional sense ― the fact that Audrey dies in this version is just devastating ― but that inimitable balance of tragicomedy hardly wavers. Despite the Director’s Cut’s truly macabre plot developments, those final images of all-conquering Audrey IIs laughing maniacally are simply hysterical, transcending even the most extravagant portrayals of cartoon supervillainy. It’s so blatantly catastrophic it absolutely floors you. There’s even a rough workprint cut that condenses the action while piling on the blood, Seymour blatantly feeding a human head to the unquenchable Audrey II at one point, but now we’re truly treading horror territory.
Ultimately, I feel they made the right decision by giving us the much tidier, slightly more appropriate theatrical ending. Our leading pair’s nuclear family dream was very much a thing of the past by the late 1980s, a fact punctuated by the advent of the The Simpsons, but Little Shop of Horrors handles the notion with the same caustic sweetness. Ironically, the Director’s Cut, while deviating from the stage production, is more in the cinematic mode with its fabulous model work and practical effects flourishes, but it’s certainly no Hollywood ending in a narrative sense. This is a movie that retains a fair wallop of stage flamboyance, but it handles silver screen expectations just as presciently, bagging itself two Oscar nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song (Mean, Green Mother from Outer Space).
With a financial return of only $39,000,000 on a budget of $25,000,000, Little Shop of Horrors still did underwhelming numbers at the box office, thanks in no small part to the changing tastes of audiences, who like my young self were probably just a little weary of anything with musical genre aspirations, but like many overlooked and underappreciated films of the era it would flourish on the VHS market, the very place where I, and millions more out there, discovered Oz’s wonderous treasure trove of oblique gaiety.
That’s the beauty of Little Shop of Horrors, it delivers all the pageantry and joy of traditional musicals, paying due homage to the genre’s cherished lineage, but its maverick presentation, a kind of alien/plant hybrid of form, sets it apart indelibly. For a young boy scarred with the stigma of outmoded Hollywood convention, Little Shop of Horrors was a real wake-up call, a ferocious flora that smashed through the rusty tin pot of closeminded preconception. It was, and still is, boundless joy irreverently distilled.