From the Vault Review: ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ (1986)

By Andrew Haas

When people hear the names Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, they often associate the two with the iconic songs they wrote for Disney animated classics like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. But before they were the biggest songwriters of the Disney Renaissance, they started in theatre, where they turned a low budget Roger Corman B-movie about a man-eating plant into a hit off-Broadway musical in 1982. A few years later, they teamed with producer David Geffen and director Frank Oz to bring their show to the silver screen. The result is one of my favorite movie musicals of all time!

In the rundown neighborhood of Skid Row lies Mushnik’s, a small flower shop that’s failing in business. But that changes when nerdy employee Seymour Krelborn, played by Rick Moranis, shows off a strange plant he has discovered and named after his ditsy crush, Audrey, played by Ellen Greene. ‘Audrey II’ becomes a huge hit, but soon Seymour realizes there’s a catch: in order for it to flourish, it must feed on human blood!

The premise may seem like an odd choice for a musical comedy, but Menken and Ashman pull it off wonderfully. The story manages to have an upbeat feel with a dark, quirky edge. In one scene, Seymour carries a body down a dark alley over to the shop. While disturbing in concept, it becomes funny when we see the bagged-up corpse clumsily fall down stairs or get knocked against a curb. The songs are done in the style of bouncy 1960s pop and rock music, with the same catchy beats and clever lyrics of the duo’s later Disney works. But while this film relishes its campy spirit, it’s not afraid to get into emotional territory, which gives it a lot more heart.

But you can’t have good musical numbers without talent to sing them, and this film has a terrific cast. Rick Moranis is perfect as the dorky Seymour, playing up the timid nice guy who’s easily manipulated. The way he interacts with other characters, including the plant, adds to the humor. Greene’s Audrey is the typical clueless love interest, but she’s also sympathetic in her desire for a better life. Although she has a fragile, high-pitched voice through most of the movie, she sure knows how to belt a song, especially during the number “Suddenly Seymour.” The two leads are very likable together, but I’ll get to why that might be a double-edge sword later. Another standout is Steve Martin as Audrey’s boyfriend, an Elvis-like sadistic dentist. He adds a lot of dumb charm to such a psychopath and has some of the best dark comedy moments in the film. Other characters include Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon, who make up a greek chorus that adds a lot to the narrative, songs, and atmosphere. Then there are the hilarious cameos by comedic actors like John Candy and Bill Murray. Finally, there’s the star attraction: the singing, man-eating plant.

Audrey II itself is an absolute marvel. Not only does the vocal performance of the late Levi Stubbs give the creature a devious charisma and soul, but the animatronics are some of the best I’ve ever seen. The lipsyncing is flawless and it moves with fluid energy, especially during the musical numbers. There are times when I forget I’m looking at a puppet and almost believe it to be alive, which, considering how each iteration of the plant was built to scale, is an impressive feat. Designer Lyle Conway and his team pull off a practical character that could give some of the best CGI creatures a run for their money.

On top of the animatronics, the production design is equally as impressive. The sets perfectly capture the essence of a New York neighborhood that no one wishes to be in. Frank Oz’s direction adds to the scale during the song numbers, which are extremely well composed. Like most good stage-to-screen adaptations, this film takes advantage of the freedoms the medium has to offer, adding variety to the staging and visuals that enhance each scene. On stage, songs like “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Dentist” would be musical monologues. But in the movie, we see Audrey’s fantasy of living with Seymour in a dream house and we witness what the crazy dentist does at his job as he sings about himself. This film is one of best examples of how to make a cinematic musical.

While the majority of the film is a fun and twisted good time, the ending has been the subject of film production infamy! To properly analyse this topic would be go into minor spoilers, so feel free to skip to the ending paragraph for my final thoughts.

The film was meant to conclude like the play, but on a bigger scale. However, when test audiences deemed the ending too dark and depressing, it was altered to end on a happier note. It wasn’t until the 2012 Director’s Cut that the original ending was finally made available in its full glory. These endings are notorious for being completely opposite from one another, and they both have their pros and cons. The original is definitely more faithful to the off-Broadway show and its playful roots in campy horror cinema, topped off with a visually stunning Godzilla-esque finale. It also makes the film feel more like a cautionary tale of fame and greed.

That being said, the execution can often come off as rather dreary in tone when compared to the rest of the film. Part of that might be due to how Moranis and Greene portray the two leads as more likable and sympathetic than the tongue-in-cheek archetypes they were written as. Even Oz, who supported this ending, admitted that film as a medium is often a more intimate experience than the stage. While the theatrical ending does strip away some of the messages and repercussions to Seymour’s actions, it does fit the overall upbeat tone better. I personally lean more towards the darker ending for how far it goes and the immense amount of effort put into it, but both endings manage to work in their own ways.

No matter how it ends, Little Shop of Horrors is still a delightful and darkly comedic experience with a great cast, amazing effects and production design, and fantastic songs. It’s a fun homage to the cheesy thrillers of the ‘50s and ‘60s and provides tons of heart, chills, and laughs. I highly recommend it to fans of Menken and Ashman, or to those looking for more fun and dark musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Rating: 4.5/5