Little Shop of Horrors (United States, 1986)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The 1986 version of Little Shop of Horrors is a celebration of two beloved motion picture genres: the musical and the cheesy science fiction flick. Before making it to the screen in its final form during the '86 Christmas season, Little Shop of Horrors had a long and colorful history. It is based on an off-Broadway play that soared to popularity during the early '80s. That, in turn, was loosely adapted from Roger Corman's infamous 1960 B-grade monster movie of the same name. (That cult classic is best known for two things: having been shot in under a week and featuring a young Jack Nicholson in a supporting role.) Little Shop also possesses the distinction of having wasted a significant chunk of its budget - more than $2 million of special effects shots were discarded after the original ending tested poorly with preview audiences.

I have seen a lot of musicals (probably more than most people under the age of 50), and few are as lively and fun as Little Shop of Horrors. It's humorous, buoyant, irreverent, and, against all odds, touching. The songs have the feel and sound of Broadway production numbers crossed with Motown tunes, and the lyrics are subversive and satirical. Production design is stupendous. Filmed entirely on Western Europe's largest soundstage at Pinewood Studios in London (the "007 set"), Little Shop of Horrors looks like it takes place in a surreal amalgamation of New York and Chicago during an era "not too long before our own." Of course, the most impressive aspect of this movie is the monstrous carnivorous plant, Audrey II, which comes alive and grows before our eyes - it's as real a character as any other. More than a decade later, when digital effects have largely replaced the kind of mechanical and manual slight-of-hand necessary to animate Audrey II, the plant still looks entirely convincing.

Little Shop of Horrors tells the story of a downtrodden nerd named Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) who lives in the basement of his workplace, Mushnik's Flower Shop. Mr. Mushnik (the late Vincent Gardenia) treats Seymour like dirt, causing Seymour to bemoan his fate: "I keep askin' God what I'm for, And He tells me 'Gee, I'm not sure.'" The other employee at the "God and customer forsaken store" is the platinum blond bimbo Audrey (Ellen Greene, reprising the role she played on stage in New York and London), with whom Seymour is hopelessly in love. Audrey secretly fantasizes about living a life with Seymour as her husband, but doesn't reveal her dreams because her boyfriend, a sadistic dentist named Orin Scrivello, D.D.S (Steve Martin), wouldn't like it.

For Seymour, everything is about to change. A strange and exotic plant he recently bought is beginning to blossom into something the likes of which no one has ever before seen. It's a sickly thing, however, because it responds only to one kind of food: fresh blood. After draining himself on a daily basis via cuts in his fingers, Seymour is rewarded by a spurt of growth from Audrey II. Suddenly, the plant is the talk of the city, Seymour is famous, and Mushnik's Flower Shop is flooded with customers. But, when Seymour cannot keep up with the plant's insatiable appetite, Audrey II makes a suggestion (yes, it can talk, using the voice of the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs): ice the nasty, abusive Orin and use him as food.

Fans of the stage play will not be disappointed by this version of Little Shop of Horrors. With the exception of the ending, it's a faithful re-creation that captures the energy and mirth. Most of the songs are present, including the show stopping "Skid Row," the soaring "Suddenly, Seymour," and Steve Martin's deliciously wicked interpretation of "Dentist." Also included: "Little Shop of Horrors," "Grow for Me," "Somewhere That's Green," "Feed Me," and "Suppertime." A few songs have been cut, including the grand finale, "Don't Feed the Plants." "The Meek Shall Inherit" has been truncated. New numbers include "Some Fun Now" (a re-working of "Ya Never Know") and the Oscar-nominated "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space."

The ending of Little Shop of Horrors has been drastically altered. Initially, it was filmed with the original conclusion: Audrey II gobbles up Audrey and Seymour, then escapes to "eat Cleveland, and Des Moines, and Peoria, and New York, and where you live." Director Frank Oz, along with his visual effects crew, created an elaborate special effects sequence showing Audrey II acting like King Kong and spreading mayhem through New York City. It's an amazing sequence (a rough cut was available briefly on the DVD release of Little Shop, but was pulled from shelves because the inclusion of the alternate ending had not been approved by David Geffen, the copyright holder), but test audiences hated it. What works on stage, where the actors give curtain calls, doesn't always have the same impact on the screen, and the deaths of Audrey and Seymour proved to be too grim. So, with much regret, Oz canned the big ending (cutting "Don't Feed the Plants") in favor of a happily-ever-after conclusion that, perhaps surprisingly, is effective.

The cast is nearly perfect. Rick Moranis, the SCTV veteran and co-star of Strange Brew and Ghostbusters, makes an ideal Seymour - someone who's gentle, lovesick, and ineffectual. From the beginning, we like Seymour and root for him, which is why the new ending works. He gets what he wants, and, as a result, we get what we want. It's a little unusual for an audience to develop such a strong bond with a character in a movie as a campy and satirical as this one, but Moranis succeeds where other actors might not have. And he sings his own songs, which is a nice touch (he's not terrible at it, either).

When Ellen Greene originated the role of Audrey for the stage, she left an imprint that no one could erase. Consequently, she was selected over notables like Barbara Streisand when it came to picking the screen Audrey. Wearing a blond wig, push-up bra, and spiked heels, and speaking in a helium voice, Greene looks and sounds exactly like she did on stage, making Audrey into a scatterbrained girl who's both sweet and sexy. She connects well with Moranis, and the love song ("Suddenly, Seymour") is one of Little Shop of Horrors' highlights.

Steve Martin doesn't have a large role, but he steals every scene he's in, especially the one featuring his big song, "Dentist." Vincent Gardenia is delightful as the perpetually exasperated Mushnik. Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell play Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon, the movie's singing Greek chorus, the "Skid Row Supremes." Levi Stubbs provides a powerful bass voice for Audrey II, making the plant even more imposing than its appearance suggests. And there are cameos by James Belushi (as an advertising exec), Christopher Guest (as the first customer to notice Audrey II), the late John Candy (as a radio announcer), Miriam Margolyes (as Orin's nurse), and Bill Murray (as a masochistic dental patient - the role essayed by Nicholson in the 1960 edition).

Of course, the real star of the show is Audrey II, the "mean green mother from outer space" who's worse than King Kong, has a nastier temper than Frankenstein, and will use just about any tactic to get what it wants (including offering geeks like Seymour fortune, fame, wealth, and instant acclaim). From a technical perspective, Audrey II, as brought to life by Lyle Conway, is a marvel. When the plant is first introduced, it looks like a pudgy Venus Fly Trap, and is smaller than Seymour's hand. By the end of the movie, it's bigger than a building and still growing (in the deleted ending, it climbs atop the Statue of Liberty and wraps its tentacles around the stone head). There are numerous models of Audrey II (one for each stage of growth), the largest of which weighed a ton and required a force of 60 technicians to operate. In addition, to better simulate fluid movement, all scenes featuring the bigger plants were filmed at about 16 frames per second (for playback at the normal 24 frames per second), meaning that the human actors (usually Rick Moranis) had to act and sing in slow motion. No choppiness is noticeable on screen, which is a credit to everyone involved.

Since it was adapted from a stage play, Little Shop of Horrors doesn't have many sets. Much of the action takes place within Mushnik's Flower Shop. "Suddenly Seymour" is sung in a debris-littered back alley with a fire escape that makes for the perfect setting for Audrey and Seymour's first kiss. "Dentist" follows a leather jacket-clad Steve Martin from his motorcycle into the office where he terrorizes patients and punches out his nurse. There's also a long pan from street level to a rooftop during the transition between "Somewhere That's Green" and "Some Fun Now." Speaking of "Somewhere That's Green," Oz's interpretation of Audrey's dream house, complete with Pine-Sol, Tupperware, "I Love Lucy" on TV, and plastic on the furniture ("to keep it neat and clean"), is magical. The outside props are obviously (and intentionally) two-dimensional and the grass that Seymour is cutting is fake.

Little Shop of Horrors is one of those musicals where it benefits the viewer to pay attention to the lyrics, because they're saturated with humor and in-jokes. (Actually, the most irreverent moment comes during the "Suddenly, Seymour" reprise, when James Belushi interrupts by deadpanning, "Beg your pardon, but if you two kids could just stop singing for a moment, I've got something I need to discuss with you.") The songs are by Alan Menken and his late partner, Howard Ashman. Together, the pair went on to greater success by doing the music for a trio of Disney animated features: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Little Shop of Horrors, however, remains their most inspired work.

This is the kind of charming motion picture that can be viewed repeatedly without ever wearing out its welcome (that characteristic is often attributable to musicals). In fact, I probably enjoy the movie more today than I did when it was released, and this is a video that I put to use from time-to-time (instead of letting it gather dust on a shelf). With several triumphant musical numbers, an original villain, a smart and witty script, a cute romance, and a new, upbeat ending, this Little Shop of Horrors offers countless delights during its 94-minute running time.

Little Shop of Horrors (United States, 1986)

Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 1986-11-26
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1