The Wayback Machine: Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

26 Aug

It’s singable, it’s quotable, it’s eminently loveable–it’s a musical about a man who makes a deal with the devil in a the form of a Mean Green Mother from OUTER SPACE–It’s Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors!

Mean, Green, Bad. Also, I bet the Audrey 2 would be delicious with some Bleu Cheese and croutons.

I first saw Little Shop in the theater, in 1986. This would make me feel old, if it weren’t the first movie I’d seen in the theater where someone said ‘shit,’ because I was about seven years old.

The only film written by songsmith Alan Menken, Little Shop was based on the musical of the same name, which was in turn based on a Roger Corman horror film of the same name. I saw the latter many, many years ago, and remember it being the kind of black comedy that is so black it draws in all surrounding molecules. It had none of the anarchic fun of the 1986 film, and is one of those rare examples of a remake surpassing the original.

OMG WASN’T THAT FUN?

Between the phat beats, clever lyrics, infectious rhythms and otherworldly-awesome performances by the whole cast, there’s almost nothing wrong with the film. You could argue that the sets look cheap (as in the totally cardboard cutout train that occasionally passes in the background of Skid Row), but that’s part of the film’s aesthetic: it has the feel of a stage musical, and since some of the performers were putting in big, broadway performances (Ellen Greene never met a note she couldn’t belt, and the world is better for it) the movie is stronger for its occasionally cheap-looking backgrounds. The ‘fake’ look only adds to the feel of the movie. If you set it in a real-looking world I’m not sure it would have the same microcosmic feel. Plus, the fakeness of the sets means that the actors’ performances command that much more of the audience’s attention, and the realistic Audrey 2 looks that much more solid and alive by comparison.

Fun fact: some of the Audrey 2 scenes were filmed at 16 frames per second, then sped up to the traditional 24. This meant that actors interacting with the plant had to act in slow motion–which is why the plant, for a giant cable puppet, has such a flawlessly fluid movement, as in this clip.

Played by Four Top Levi Stubbs, the Audrey 2 is the sort of prop that took on a life of its own–on viewing the film, I catch myself thinking ‘I wonder what that plant is up to these days. He was really going places.’

Since Frank Oz worked with God in Human form Jim Henson, he knew a thing or two about making a prop come to life and the puppet’s performance is, to coin an alliterative phrase, perfect. More than that, If Stubbs wasn’t a charismatic maneating plant (or Moranis wasn’t a suitably likeable nerd) the movie would be dead in the water. After all, how can you make a movie about a deal with the devil if the devil has no charisma or charm?

Moving on: if you’re unfamiliar with the story, sweet, affable nerd Seymour Krelborn (Moranis), pines for the love of Audrey, a vaguely-trashy and baby-throated girl with a boyfriend who likes it rough. One day Krelborn, who lives in the slowly-dying Skid Row plant shop  where he works, comes across a strange and unusual plant after a remarkable solar eclipse, and takes it home. But the plant has a secret–it’s carnivorous.

In order for Krelborn to maintain the fame and fortune that the shop suddenly begins experiencing, he must feed the plant his own blood at first–and then, as it becomes bigger and bigger, it begins making its own demands. A hostage to his own fortune (or so he thinks), Krelborn must feed the plant or face failure–of the shop, of his own career, of his blossoming love with Audrey 1.

Enter Orrin Scrivello, DDS.

You don't have to be a sadist to work here, but it helps!

In one of those amazing performances that should have won some kind of Oscar, Steve Martin almost steals the show as Audrey’s boyfriend and sadistic dentist, Scrivello.

Once upon a time, Martin was the kind of comedy genius who could make even the most dour and miserable of bastards laugh. His antics brought smiles to children and adults alike, and he spawned characters whose contributions to the pop culture lexicon made America a slightly better place.

Nowadays, I just don’t know.

Anyhow, once upon a time, he was a man who blew the doors off a song about how much he enjoyed being a sadistic dentist. Here is that song.

I can’t remember the last time I did anything with that much enthusiasm. Clearly, I picked the wrong career.

Little Shop is one of those movies that always cheers me up, no matter what kind of mood I’m in. It’s infectious songs and perfectly over the top performances drag a bad mood upright.

It’s less a cult movie than a sleeper classic, the kind of strange little film that some love completely and others find stuck in their consciousness like a commercial jingle, or a toy keychain they found as a child and can’t part with. If only more musicals had this kind of charm.

Little Shop of Horrors is available on Instant Watch, but apparently on the DVD there is an alternate ending in which Audrey 2 takes over the world. Known as the ‘Everybody Dies’ ending because–guess what!–everybody dies, the ending was changed when test audiences didn’t like it. I can’t say I blame them–I love a story with a happy ending, and since Krelborn’s great sin was that he just wanted to protect his loved one, I can’t see it necessary that he come to a bad ending.

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2 Responses to “The Wayback Machine: Little Shop of Horrors (1986)”

  1. Jessi Miller August 27, 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    I haven’t watched that since I was a kid, so I had forgotten how good the puppet work is! Really amazing, and I thought the slow-mo tidbit you included was interesting. I wonder how they came up with that. Brilliant.

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