“On the twenty-third day of the month of September, /
In an early year of a decade not too long before our own, /
The human race suddenly encountered /
A deadly threat to its very existence.
And this terrifying enemy surfaced, /
As such enemies often do, /
In the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places…”
And after that prelude, we’re thrust into the grimy doo wop of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.
Directed by Frank Oz, this is one hell of an immaculately constructed misfit of a musical adaptation of a deviant off-Broadway production. Retaining the original writer Howard Ashman and songwriter Alan Menken — both of whom went onto to craft Disney works that influenced generations — I’m gobsmacked this was ever made. (Allegedly David Geffen, head of self-titled Geffen studios was a huge fan and willed this to the big screen.)
To think that it all started with this oddity of a basement musical based on a Corman B-movie, a B-movie that is mostly only known because it was one of Jack Nicholson’s early films.
(Can you imagine a world without the influence of Roger Corman? I sure as hell can’t.)
The premise is twisted but simple: botany enthusiast Seymour works at a flower shop in Skid Row — a very destitute downtown in an unnamed city full of poor loners and losers — and finagles an interesting plant that he names Audrey II, after Audrey, the co-worker he has a crush on. It turns out that the interesting plant is a carnivorous alien that feeds on human blood. Seymour nurses it into a monstrous creature and matters escalate.
The process of converting a counter-culture work from the stage to screen can be trepidatious, especially when you’re spending a lot of money and working with a major studio. Fortunately, all of the stars aligned for LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. It features the best of both worlds, which you immediately see in the set design.
“…so I live downtown … that’s your home address /
You live downtown … when your life’s a mess /
You live downtown when depression’s just status quo. /
(Down on Skid Row.)”
While Skid Row does look like a Hollywood set, all flat and confined, the streets and alleyways are covered in dirt and grime and shame. (In other words: Hollywood.)
“Someone show me a way to get outta here. /
‘Cause I constantly pray that I’ll get outta here. /
Please won’t somebody say I’ll get outta here. /
Someone gimme my shot or I’ll rot here.”
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS manages to straddle the best of both worlds: it’s wildly, vividly strange and unique and still has the anarchic energy of subversive theatre, but also has so much fucking Hollywood money behind it. (At the time, it was the most expensive Warner Bros. production ever.)
“Come and look at the plant some more! It’s just going to get bigger and more interesting!”
The cast is astounding: Rick Moranis is perfection as dweeby Seymour and has pipes that you never, ever would have expected from him. Ellen Greene as Audrey is the only one retained from the off-Broadway production and I can’t imagine this work without her; the fifties blonde hair, her nasal, high-pitched, breathy — but surprisingly not irritating — voice imbues Audrey with so much character. You are not human if you aren’t moved by her half of Suddenly Seymour. Steve Martin practically steals the show with his sadomasochistic dental practice number. Bill Murray is one of his patients! Motherfucking John Candy is an over-the-top radio host!
“Let me guess: you got tied up.”
“No, just handcuffed a little.”
I’d be remiss to neglect the invincible, untouchable Greek chorus: Tichina Arnold as Crystal, Michelle Weeks as Ronette, and Tisha Campbell as Chiffon. (If you’re of the age that I am, you may remember Campbell as the charismatic Gina from the TV show MARTIN.) They’re all hilariously brusque when they aren’t perfectly performing doo wop accompanied by tight dance routines. They tie the entire work together, and they riff off of a number of prior musical works including WEST SIDE STORY.
“We’re on the split shift!”
“Yeah, we went to school ’til 5th grade, then we split!”
The real star, of course, is Audrey II, voiced by Levi Stubbs of THE FOUR TOPS. His gregarious and dramatic and uniquely pitched voice breathes life into one of the most articulated and astoundingly animated puppets ever created. The amount of work put into Audrey II — willed into the world by veterans of Jim Henson’s puppet company — is astounding. (I’ll note that working with Audrey II required certain compromises from the performers, such as having to lip sync in half-speed during certain scenes. The fact that you can’t even notice that while watching is not only a testament to the puppeteers but also the performers.)
“I’m just a mean green mother, a real disgrace, /
And you’ve got me fightin’ mad. /
I’m just a mean green mother from outer space, /
Gonna trash your ass! Gonna rock this place! /
I’m mean and green, /
Mean and Green! /
And I am bad.”
I touched on the sets previously and while they’re claustrophobic and often constricted, this adaptation is shot with the verve and energy of a Barry Sonnenfeld film, making the most of tight close-ups while also utilizing deep focus to layer background action, and somehow feeling cartoonish but grounded at the same time. Especially of note is how the Greek chorus is slowly revealed — almost as angels — to back Seymour and Audrey when they finally admit their feelings for each other.
Lastly, goddamn, Menken’s songs. They’re all so wildly catchy and captures the hooks of classic Motown while also being subversive in only the way Menken could pen. Once you watch this film, you’ll be humming and haunted by his songs for days and days.
“Shing-a-ling, shing-a-ling-ding, what a creepy thing to be happening! /
(Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!) /
Shang-a-lang, feel the sturm and drang in the air. /
Sha-la-la, stop it right where you are. /
Don’t you move a thing. /
You better /
(Tellin’ you, you better) /
Tell your mama somethin’s gonna get her /
She better — everybody better — beware!”
I’ll note that the theatrical cut’s final act is wildly different from the Director’s cut. I will not spoil matters, but the Director’s cut is very self-indulgent, cost a fuckton of money, and — even for my goth sensibilities — very cruel and dark. I will simply say this: it is extremely nihilistic and goes full kaiju.
“You’re not gonna get away with this! Your kind never does!”
I appreciate being able to see both cuts nowadays via Blu-Ray, but holy fucking shit, if I’d seen the Director’s cut as a youth? Sheer fucking nightmare fuel.
“I’ve done terrible things, Audrey.”
This is a production that has inspired so many over so many years, and this film adaptation not only does it justice, it also makes the most of the medium while staying true to the work’s roots. It’s a remarkable film that will certainly inspire more for years to come, which is an odd thing to say about a film centered around a blood-thirsty singing plant, but we all find inspiration and empathy in the oddest of places.