Classic Musicals #3 – Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Little_shop_of_horrorsLittle Shop of Horrors (1986)
Directed by: Frank Oz
Written by: Howard Ashman (based on Little Shop of Horrors (stage musical) by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, The Little Shop of Horrors (1960 film) by Roger Corman)
Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Steve Martin, Vincent Gardenia, John Candy, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Paul Dooley

1960’s The Little Shop of Horrors proved to be an early hit for the prolific and iconic filmmaker extraordinaire Roger Corman.  Shot on a meager budget of $30,000 and being shown mostly in drive-in movie theaters, Corman’s film had a much further reach than he ever could have imagined.  The original film inspired a hugely successful off-Broadway musical, as well as a beloved 80’s cult musical that managed to be a modest financial and critical success.  Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors has a lot going for it, including hilarious leading men Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, a screenplay full of catchy and consistent songwriting by Disney writer Howard Ashman, and an experienced visual director at its helm.  Frank Oz famously worked side by side with Jim Henson (creator of The Muppets) for years, developing his craft and becoming familiar with the use of puppetry and other practical special effects.  Oz, former voice of famous Muppet characters like Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy, as well as Star Wars’ Yoda, made a career of directing cult hits like The Dark Crystal, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, The Indian in the Cupboard, Bowfinger, and Death at a Funeral.  Little Shop of Horrors, one of the director’s earliest hits, combined Oz’s penchant for practical effects and oddball humor.  Starring alongside Moranis and Martin are Ellen Green and Vincent Gardenia, along with cameos from stars like John Candy, Bill Murray, and Christopher Guest.  The movie’s ending was famously re-shot after test audiences reacted negatively to its dark and morbid nature.  Executives at The Geffen Company had been against the original ending in the first place, and used this as an excuse to axe it from the final cut.  The cast and crew of Little Shop of Horrors were forced to cut 23-minutes of footage from the original cut of the film, and instead shot a much more family friendly and optimistic final act.  The removal of the original ending cut two original songs from the film, and even saw a casting change as Jim Belushi replaced the then unavailable Paul Dooley for the role of an important marketing executive. Despite the heavy re-shoots, Little Shop of Horrors proved to be a financial and critical success, picking up two Oscar nominations (for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song), as well as two Golden Globe nominations (for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical and Best Original Score).  Little Shop of Horrors has managed to find itself a dedicated cult audience, and currently sits among the best musical films of the 1980’s.  The film’s original ending is now readily available on home media, and Frank Oz and Howard Ashman’s original vision can now be seen in all its glory.

Little Shop of Horrors closely follows the plot of Alan Menken’s off-broadway stage play, but also lifts basic elements from Roger Corman’s 1960 film.  The film follows down on his luck Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), who works at Mushnik’s Flower Shop, owned by the strict and mostly unsuccessful Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia).  At the flower shop, Seymour works closely with his crush and colleague Audrey (Ellen Greene).  Both Seymour and Audrey live in Skid Row, and dream of one day becoming successful and being able to leave the city slums.  Unfortunately for Seymour, Audrey is dating the emotionally and physically abusive dentist Dr. Orin Scrivello (Steve Martin), who refuses to let her out of his clutches.  After a string of bad luck (and bad business), Mr. Mushnik decides to close up his flower shop and move on with life.  Seymour is able to save the shop by displaying his newly acquired unique flower in the shop’s window.  He names the mysterious new plant Audrey II (Levi Stubbs), and quickly finds that the formerly unassuming plant has an insatiable appetite for blood and flesh.  The young and hopeful flower shop attendant soon finds himself conflicted, on one hand not wanting to feed into Audrey II’s dangerous appetite, but also wanting to lead a successful life and move far away from Skid Row. Through a series of unfortunate events, Audrey II finds its prey and grows many times its original size, bringing hundreds of paying customers into Mushnik’s Flower Shop.  Without knowing it, Seymour’s feeding of the plant spells disaster for the flower shop and for the city of New York if it isn’t stopped.  Will Seymour find a way to appease the mysterious Audrey II, or will the ever growing alien plant prove too much to handle for the hapless young man?  Find out in Frank Oz’s 1986 Little Shop of Horrors!

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Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Vincent Gardenia playing the employees of Mushnik’s Flower Shop in Little Shop of Horrors.

For the sake of clarification, I’ll start by stating that I watched the film as it was originally meant to be seen, downer ending and all.  This is the version supported by the director and writer of the film, and therefore I think it’s only appropriate to focus on that original vision.

Before starting my journey through the classics of movie musicals, I had only heard vague details about 1986’s cult hit.  I knew all about the famous story of re-shooting the ending sequence, and I knew that the now retired Rick Moranis starred in the picture, but it was otherwise a completely fresh experience for this critic.  Having loved nearly every Frank Oz production I’ve seen up to this point, I should have known that my time with Little Shop of Horrors was going to be a memorable experience.  I’ve never enjoyed Rick Moranis as much as I did in this project, and I finally feel like I understand his appeal.  His turn as Seymour Krelborn is perfect, even if it doesn’t go about reinventing the wheel.  His hapless but hopeful good-natured character is far from original, but Moranis manages to nail the role in every way.  Unfortunately for Rick Moranis, his co-star is Ellen Greene, who may just have the most grating voice I’ve ever heard on film.  While it does suit her catchy musical numbers, I just couldn’t take her seriously as Audrey.  What is supposed to be a beautiful, hopelessly romantic, sympathetic punching bag is instead reduced to an annoying cliche that doesn’t even seem to fit the film’s offbeat nature.  Luckily for the film, Frank Oz’s casting of comedic veterans like Steve Martin, Bill Murray, John Candy, and Christopher Guest more than makes up for Greene’s occasionally painful performance.  Martin in particular steals the show with the most physical performance in Little Shop of Horrors, playing a delightfully evil dentist and delivering the most memorable musical number in the film.  Even more impressive than the many hilarious performances are the musical numbers, which are far and away the highlight of this bizarre movie.  Howard Ashman, who co-wrote the successful off-Broadway production, brings with him a host of memorable and incredibly quirky tunes, many of which feature prominent doo-wop and 1950’s pop influences.  The two most memorable numbers come in the form of Steve Martin’s rendition of “Dentist!”, which sees him purposely inflicting pain on patients on dental staff alike, and “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”, where Audrey II tells of its sinister true intentions (and shows off its impressive lyricism, too).  The special effects in the film are incredible in all respects, especially the creature design for Audrey II in all its forms.  The puppetry is entirely convincing and has aged perfectly, never seeming too over-the-top or looking “fake”.  The puppets (designed by Lyle Conway) are gracefully operated, creating a truly frightening and visually interesting antagonist.  The film’s original ending sees the use of incredible model work for downtown Manhattan, all of which looks incredible even today.  I can’t imagine how Frank Oz must have felt when he was forced to cut 23-minutes of tremendous footage from Little Shop of Horrors.  On the subject of the film’s climax, I can say having seen both versions that the original is far and away the best version.  While it may seem unsatisfying for viewers who prefer lighter fare in their musicals, it perfectly suits the offbeat and dark nature of the film.  It’s dark and horrific in many ways, but I wouldn’t want it any other way in this case.  I’m glad that the original version of the film has been restored and treated with the respect it deserves, because it truly adds weight to the final product.

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Steve Martin as the evil Orin Scrivello, DDS in Frank Oz’s cult hit Little Shop of Horrors.

While Little Shop of Horrors may not be a perfect film, there’s just far too much about it that I adored.  The talented comedic cast, the memorable musical numbers and offbeat nature of the screenplay, and the incredibly detailed practical effects and puppetry are more than enough to overlook a few bad performances and some slight drag in the movie’s later moments.  If you’re a fan of cult musicals like Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise, or 80’s horror movies in general, then I can confidently say that Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors is for you.  Little Shop of Horrors is an incredibly funny and catchy, if slightly bizarre and nonsensical, musical.  It’s highly recommended.

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