The reason I first discovered Little Shop Of Horrors is all rather embarrassing, as it came down to jealousy. My Sister at the time was absolutely obsessed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show and whilst I had a fondness for it I wanted a musical all of my own to cherish. Ah, the joys of being thirteen years old back in the nineteen eighties. So I actually ended up buying the soundtrack to it long before I saw the film, but instantly fell in love with the songs, and when I finally saw the movie it lived up to all of my expectations and then some. Ever since it’s a film I’ve watched regularly and unlike the majority of films I rewatch my adoration for it has never diminished.
A parody of Roger Corman’s 1960 low budget original, which was only made because of a bet from his brother that he couldn’t make a film reusing the set of another film, this sends up that b-movie with a joyful spring in it’s step, but also remembers to be surprisingly tender in it’s portrayal of a damaged couple trying to escape from the bleakness of Skid Row. The original movie isn’t actually very good, with only Jack Nicholson’s cameo as the masochistic dental patient being a highlight, but Frank Oz and co took the overall plot and made some wonderful out of it.
Set in Skid Row, the slums of a major city, we’re introduced to poor old Seymour as he works in a florist for the vaguely caring but also slightly mean Mr Mushnik, who exploits Seymour and forces him to work all hours. Also working at the florist is the ditzy but sweet Audrey, who Seymour’s crazily in love with, though unfortunately for him she’s dating the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello. But then one day he suddenly notices a new kind of plant an old Chinese man is selling and takes it home, it wilts however, at least until he accidentally discovers what it wishes to feed upon – blood!
It’s one of the tightest films I’ve ever seen, upon watching it back for this review there isn’t a single second that needs to be cut, whilst Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene are perfect in the lead roles, their chemistry is magnetic and I don’t think I’ve ever wanted a fictional couple to find happiness together as I do with these two. Both are fragile, broken individuals, crushed by the bleakness of Skid Row and those they have to interact with. What’s all the more remarkable is that it makes you love a murderer, as Seymour’s Faustian pact with the plant leads to the deaths of the Dentist (which it could be suggested he’s not technically responsible for, but he could have easily saved him) and Mr Mushnik who he without doubt was responsible for the demise of as he knew the plant would devour him. Sure he did it out of love (and to save his own skin) but the boy definitely has blood on his hands and there’s not a court in the land who wouldn’t have sent him down.
The plant is another reason it’s such a unique film, there’s not many b-movie monsters you’ll love and hate at the same time but Audrey II pulls it off with aplomb, and in her earliest stages as a tiny plant is even rather cute and adorable. When Seymour discovers she can talk she trots out some of the movies funniest lines, yet when she suddenly turns evil and attempts to eat Audrey the audience is suddenly against her. Even more so if you’re watching the directors cut, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Oh, and if you’re wondering why I’m describing the plant as female, despite Levi Stubb’s vocals she is a mean green mother after all. The look of the plant is superb too, it was suggested a few years ago that a remake might be made and if it does happen (and I pray that it doesn’t) it would be all cgi, whereas in this it feels incredibly real, partially due to Audrey II’s designer Lyle Conways’ impressive work, but also because of the amazing efforts of the team of up to sixty puppeteers who manipulated the beast.
Just three years after the release of the film Alan Menken went on to provide the songs for Disney’s The Little Mermaid, revitalising the studio and bringing them out of the decline they’d suffered during the eighties, as well as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and various other films, along with the ill-fated but shockingly lovable tv series Galavant. But I’d suggest that this is his very best work, which also applies to the late and greatly missed Howard Ashman, whose lyrics are a mix of the extremely funny but also surprisingly affecting. Whenever anyone talks about the film Steve Martin’s Dentist song is often the first to be mentioned, and understandably so as it’s a ridiculously catchy number and the funniest of them all, but there isn’t a bad song within the running time. It’d be hard to place them in order of how much I love them, but Mean Green Mother From Outer Space would come next as it never fails to put a smile on my face, followed by Suddenly Seymour. Both Ellen Greene and Rick Moranis sing the hell out of it, and it’s a charming and alluring representation of the love they have for each other, albeit tinted with the fear of being hurt once again. Even the more minor efforts are enchanting though, like Grow For Me and the opening song Skid Row, all of which add to the sympathy we feel for these mixed up characters.
The film opened in 1986 and was a reasonably decent hit, taking $38,982,260 in the US alone (which for a romantic comedy horror musical in the 80s was pretty impressive), and went on to do stellar figures on video. It could have all gone terribly wrong though, as according to Lyle Conway Levi Stubbs was almost replaced – “After the first test screening in Los Angeles, all hell broke loose. Frank called me and told me the results of the preview, and that the studio wanted Rodney Dangerfield to re-record the voice! Rodney was hot at the time, and I think they were afraid of audiences being frightened”. I’m not particularly a fan of his but I’ve nothing against Dangerfield personally, yet I can’t help but feel he would have ruined the film.
As it is the preview screenings made an enormous difference to the film as the original ending where Seymour and Audrey are eaten by the plant, who then goes on the attack with all of her offspring and it looks like they may indeed end up taking over the world, tested extremely badly with audiences. Oz realised it needed a happier ending if it was to be a success, and so shot a new finale, complete with a cameo from James Belushi. As a kid I used to love the happy ending but have to admit that as an adult I prefer the more downbeat one. Audrey’s death is of course truly tragic but given his murderous ways you can’t deny that Seymour had it coming, and the quite epic scenes of the plants destroying the world are a delight to watch, especially as they’re sound-tracked to Levi Stubb’s gleeful cackling.
There’s a sense of joyful exuberance running throughout the film, and the songs are quite beautiful – to this day I still know every word of Suddenly Seymour and often find myself singing it in the shower, and if I ever feel low the first thing I do is reach for the soundtrack cd. It’s directed by Frank Oz with what looks like effortless skill, the performances are absolutely perfect, and most importantly it’s an incredibly lovable and funny film, which is often held up as an example of being one of the very best of it’s genre.