by William Moon
Well, certainly the talk of this week has been about the…♪ to-tal-e-clipse-of-the-Sun. So that naturally got me thinking about one of my all-time favorite movies, Little Shop of Horrors. This isn’t a round number anniversary for the film or anything, nor is there any type of special re-release coming that I know of. There is talk of some sort of remake, what with musicals being a somewhat bizarre rage on network TV right now, but I really don’t know much about where things stand on its development at the moment, aside from uber-producer Greg Berlanti’s involvement (he produces seemingly every show on TV, most prominently the CW DC shows along with a few shows at other networks). No, this is purely the result of the song I linked above being stuck in my head for the past few days (super preferable to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”), and the few eclipse memes scattered around social media that have referenced the film. Really, there shouldn’t need to be a reason to extol the virtues of this movie, so let’s get on with it.
First off, let’s address the elephant in the room right away – the ending. If you’re unfamiliar (most of the web ink dedicated to the film discusses the virtues/drawbacks of the original ending), the movie is a film adaptation of an early ’80s off-Broadway stage musical, which is itself a very loose musical retelling of an old Roger Corman B-movie from 1960. (That film is best known for spawning the musical, Corman’s involvement, and for featuring a very young Jack Nicholson in the role that most closely resembles Bill Murray’s in the ’86 version). As if often the case with stage musicals, especially subversive ones like this one, the ending is very campily dark, with Audrey II essentially winning, killing the main characters and then threatening the audience. While I certainly understand the desire to faithfully adapt the source material, it’s downright amazing that no one involved in the production of the film considered that maybe this kind of ending was, you know, not such a great idea for a movie of this type. To make matters worse, the filmmakers went ham on the planned finale, with the original cut featuring Audrey II and its spawn overrunning the entire world and referencing several classic B-monster movies of yore in the process. A showing of this ending for a test audience went over like a lead balloon, as they strangely didn’t like seeing characters they’d been rooting for over the previous hour-plus be eaten, so a new ending was put together, which is the relatively happy one you see in the finished film. Basically, as director Frank Oz has stated in the years following this movie’s release, dead actors from stage musicals can make a big show of their death scene and then come out for a curtain call immediately after the show, while the dead Seymour and Audrey from the movie just get eaten and then the credits roll. There’s a key distinction there, something which has affected other stage-to-screen musical adaptations (Into the Woods, anyone?).
Anywho, I’m glad the second ending is the one they ultimately went with, as the dark ending was just too much, even for a fan of dark, subversive things like I am. With that said, let’s take stock of the many things that make this movie work so well. First and foremost, the songs. Frank Oz’s directorial prowess and Rick Moranis’ general wonderfulness couldn’t make this movie a classic if it weren’t for great songs, so fortunately this musical was a product of the minds of writer Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken. For many – hell, almost everyone – your most likely indoctrination to Ashman/Menken material is through the Disney animated classics The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. (Ashman tragically died young before those last two were released, though Menken continued to work with Disney on several of its other animated films through the rest of the ’90s.) Obviously, their Disney work together largely soundtracked the early ’90s for many a child, so I shouldn’t have to sell you on these guys’ musical chops (plus, I really love the idea that the same guys who wrote “Beauty and the Beast (Tale as Old as Time)” also wrote “Dentist!”). The music here is gold nearly across the board, and I really struggle when it comes to picking out a specific favorite. Songs like “Prologue (Little Shop of Horrors)” and “Da-Doo” excellently set the general ’50s vibe the film is aiming for, while “Skid Row (Downtown)”, “Somewhere That’s Green”, and “Suddenly, Seymour” are all full-throated Broadway magic. And then there’s the Audrey II songs, all of which are strong even without considering the intense effort the numbers required from the cast and crew (more on that later). If there’s one dog in the bunch, the most often-cited is “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”, which was the only song written specifically for the movie (a standard practice in musical adaptations, so the film can submit something for Best Original Song at the various awards shows, all other songs being ineligible since they don’t qualify as original). I really don’t mind it, though you could argue it goes on a bit too long. But generally throughout, these are great songs performed well, which is the first and most important building block for the film.
From there, director Frank Oz (known for his puppetry work on The Muppets and as Yoda in multiple Star Wars movies, as well as a lengthy and generally solid directorial career across several genres) builds a lavish paean to B-movies, several genres of music, and ’50s nostalgia. The sets are a significant point in the film’s favor, with the large, very movie set-looking backdrop for the “Skid Row” sequence being a particular highlight. This article from the AV Club is dedicated to this number and really gets at the nuts and bolts of what makes it such a soaring scene, so I definitely think it’s worth a read. But generally, between this and the legitimately rousing “Suddenly, Seymour”, Oz gives us all a clinic on how to stage a musical number. Staging is a key, underrated element to the success of any dynamic set piece. It’s the reason why the action scenes in The Dark Knight are so much more memorable than the ones in Batman Begins, and it’s also one of the main reasons why Michael Myers is so much more unsettlingly terrifying when directed by John Carpenter than any of the other schmos who’ve directed Halloween movies. Here, it’s one of many elements that send this movie to another level. As I said before, I struggle to definitively name a favorite track from this movie, with that struggle most often coming down to these two. The strength of the songs themselves, the vocal work from the cast, and Oz’s directorial brilliance are all inseparable for me, as even hearing the songs with no visuals will always call to mind the bit in “Skid Row” where the people in the street all stop and sing in unison, or the quick editing of its coda that leads up to Seymour and Audrey converging on the same street corner to belt the final line, or the shot in “Suddenly, Seymour” where The Greek Chorus singers are introduced on the balcony over Seymour’s shoulder, or his quick “Yes, you can!” rush up the stairs to join Audrey for the finale. This is all A+, gold star work, and I haven’t even mentioned the plant yet.
I feel like it’s easy to watch this movie and never fully realize that yes, that’s a giant plant belting out R&B tunes. I mean, yeah, in the movie, that’s clearly what’s going on. But, you know, in real life, there had to be a giant plant on the set that was moving along with the music and interacting with human actors. Obviously, Oz’s vast experience with puppetry (in addition to his aforementioned Muppets and Star Wars work, he also co-directed The Dark Crystal and worked on Labyrinth with his Muppets cohort Jim Henson) obviously helped here, but I don’t think there’d ever been a puppet that required what Audrey II required. First, they made several different versions of the plant to accommodate its changing size, and by the time they got around to filming its musical numbers, they were having to film everything at half-speed to make the scenes look right (which had to be difficult for Rick Moranis to pull off, especially during their duet “Feed Me (Git It)”). Getting this plant to look like the exact right mixture of camp and horror, realistic and completely fantastical was exceedingly difficult, but they pulled it off perfectly. Any modern remake of the film (hopefully Mr. Berlanti is reading this) needs to understand both the enormity and import of this. The movie wouldn’t have worked without it. (Also, don’t do a damn CG plant, nobody wants that.)
Mentioning Rick Moranis’ performance during his interaction with the larger Audrey II puppets is a good place to transition into praising Moranis’ overall work in the film. Never really a leading man outside of this film, he’s everything the movie needs him to be. He sings well, but doesn’t over-sing, a trap many musical performers fall into, and he brings the exact right “gee whiz” charm to his role. His guileless charms are essential to making the romantic arc of the movie work, which therefore elevates the “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly, Seymour” numbers’ importance to the film, but he also walks the tightrope of playing a sympathetic character who also conspires to feed multiple men to a man-eating plant. Plus, again, you try acting in slow motion next to a giant plant puppet during an upbeat musical number and see how easy it is.
Ellen Greene originated the character of Audrey in the stage musical, and her odd mannerisms and vocal affectations really suit the character. They both contribute to the innocent ’50s vibe of the movie, but also make the parts where she sings full-throat carry maximum impact. Steve Martin appears to have the time of his life as the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello, and his performance during the “Dentist!” number is among his all-time career highlights (and there are many). The word “maladjusted” never knew what hit it. (Also, the mouth apparatus that appears during the POV shot from inside the patient’s mouth during that number was a bizarre, inspired choice that never fails to elicit a laugh from me.) Plus, this movie presaged our current era (from about 2001 on) of studio comedies where big time stars randomly pop up in random side roles just for the hell of it. Sure, the movie could’ve carried on just fine without those random appearances from Bill Murray, John Candy, Christopher Guest, and…um…Jim Belushi, but they sure made things more fun. (Notably, Murray’s character had been cut from the stage musical, but was reinserted into the film, with the actor getting to improvise his entire performance.)
At the risk of underestimating Four Tops lead vocalist Levi Stubbs’ taste for odd sci-fi/horror musicals, I do wonder just how exactly he was pitched on providing the voice for Audrey II. It’s another bizarre, inspired choice in a movie full of them. At the very least, he was probably the first person most of us heard use the phrase “tough titty”. Really, though, his presence here along with other big names like Martin and Murray (in their only movie together) serve to remind us that this wasn’t some low budget curio for the studio. ’80s music mega-mogul David Geffen was a producer on the stage version and was also involved in the production of the film, too. He originally wanted Steven Spielberg to help produce and Martin Scorsese to direct, something that Scorsese seemed interested in doing for a while. Cyndi Lauper and Madonna were up for the role of Audrey at different points before the film wisely offered it to Greene. Gobs of money were put into the sets and puppetry, with the film using every possible stage at the famed Pinewood Studios in England. Make no mistake, this was a massive project. (For scale, this movie cost $7-8 million more to produce than Aliens, which also came out in 1986.) In a way, that makes its existence even stranger, as I strain to imagine a world where a major film studio dumps vaults full of money into a movie like this now.
All told, this isn’t a perfect film by any stretch. The altered ending is superior to the original apocalyptic finale, but it’s still a bit of a cop-out (Seymour probably should’ve been punished for what he did, but wasn’t) and the “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” sequence is the point where the film starts to creak and groan a little bit. (Check out the dark original cut if you feel so inclined, or at least take a listen to the altered and cut songs. “The Meek Shall Inherit” was heavily edited in the finished film and “(Finale) Don’t Feed the Plants” was cut entirely.) But the key takeaway here is that the film is both a good musical and a good movie. Those aren’t all that common, as several successful musicals simply don’t translate very well to the big screen, including a few that still got awards lobbed at them anyway. (Not to bag on it too hard ’cause it’s still a lot of fun, but another sci-fi/horror/musical pastiche, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is certainly an enjoyable and energetically performed musical, but falls apart a little over halfway through as a movie.) I like to think the existence of this film (and the musical before it) are just as responsible for the existence of the revered Joss Whedon nerd musicals (Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Once More, with Feeling” and the web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), as well as more recent stuff like the Flash/Supergirl crossover musical from this past TV season as Rocky Horror is, maybe even more so. It’s a film perfect for relatively common rewatches, especially around Halloween, or, like this week, a total eclipse of the sun. The strength of the performances, the effects, the tone, and the more traditional musical numbers shine throughout the entire film. Plus, the nostalgic tone, the set design, and the puppetry all give the movie a somewhat timeless feel that doesn’t really seem beholden to any one era. Combine them all and you have a standout in at least two pretty disparate genres. And by comparison, well, most other musicals sure look like plant food to me.