Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Devil Went Down to Skid Row: A Look at Little Shop of Horrors ('86)


“On the 23rd 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.” –Little Shop of Horrors, Prologue

There was an appalling lack of montages during this year’s Oscar ceremony. Perhaps I’m in the vast minority here but one reason I look forward to the Oscars so much is because I love a good montage and the Oscars usually has about four per broadcast. Even if it’s just a montage of all the movies that came out during the year, with good editing and the right music, I still get chills. However, this year there was only one montage: HORROR MOVIES!!! Even though I suspect this montage was nothing more than an excuse to include Twilight in the proceedings (it was introduced by stars Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner), I was pleased to see genre movies get some respect. I was also pleased to see that some of my favorite movies made the cut, despite being not exactly horror movies, at least not in the sense that Psycho, Jaws, or Alien are horror movies. One of these was the 1986 version of Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop of Horrors began its life in 1960 as a B movie filmed in two days by legendary director, Roger Corman. I think another reason for the montage may have been that Corman was one of the recipients of an Honorary Oscar this year and in lieu of letting him speak, they did this. The 1960 version is now a cult classic, featuring Jack Nicholson in one of his first screen roles. It also appeared in the montage. It became an award-winning off-Broadway musical in 1982 with songs by one of my favorite songwriting teams, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. These two would go on to provide the songs for Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, paving the way for what is now known as the Disney Renaissance. But before Disney, there was Little Shop of Horrors.

Released in 1986 and directed by Frank Oz, Little Shop of Horrors tells the sordid, satirical tale of Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), a nerdy flower shop clerk living in 1961 New York City. Seymour’s been down on his luck his whole life. An orphan, he lives in a dismal slum known as Skid Row where “depression’s just status quo.” The shop hasn’t had a customer in forever, his boss (Vincent Gardenia) treats him like dirt and the girl of his dreams, co-worker Audrey (Ellen Greene), would love to go out with him were it not for her abusive boyfriend, a sadistic dentist (Steve Martin). However, things start looking up when Seymour finds an unusual flytrap that attracts customers to the store. Unfortunately, he quickly discovers that this new plant, dubbed Audrey II, needs human blood to survive. Seymour manages at first by giving the plant his own blood, but as Audrey II grows bigger and stronger, he learns to talk (in Levi Stubbs’s voice!) and starts demanding bodies. In return, he promises Seymour anything he desires—even a chance to finally be with Audrey. An omnipresent girl group—Crystal (Tichina Arnold), Chiffon (Tischa Campbell), and Ronette (Michelle Weeks)—watches over all, narrating Greek chorus style. Cameos include: John Candy, Christopher Guest, James Belushi, Miriam Margolyes and Bill Murray (reprising Jack Nicholson’s role in the 1960 film) as a masochist who comes to Steve Martin for “long, slow root canal.” If you’ve ever wondered what a sex scene between Murray and Martin would be like, this movie will give you a pretty good idea.

I love Little Shop of Horrors. It’s Faust meets Menken and Ashman meets B horror meets SNL/SCTV meets Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. It’s a little like watching a live action cartoon with deliberately over the top acting and a very dark story played (almost) entirely for laughs. And the music is amazing. Everybody does their own singing and there isn’t a bad song in it. One standout is “Somewhere That’s Green,” in which Audrey describes her fantasy of running away with Seymour to the suburbs and living happily as a Donna Reed-esque housewife. With lyrics like “Between our frozen dinner and our bedtime: nine-fifteen/we snuggle watching Lucy on a big, enormous 12-inch screen,” the song manages to be both a hilarious send-up of Cold War American idealism and a genuinely moving portrait of Audrey’s longing and pain. And no matter how much I remind myself it’s a movie about a giant man-eating plant, I still cry during the love duet, “Suddenly, Seymour.” The romance between Audrey and Seymour is the sweet center of this absurd universe. It’s clear from the beginning that they love each other very much but both are too insecure to believe they’re worthy of a happy relationship. I love all their scenes together.

Plus, it has Steve Martin singing about how much he enjoys being a sadistic dentist. Sample lyric: “I am your dentist and I enjoy the career that I picked. / I am your dentist and I get off on the pain I inflict. / I thrill when I drill a bicuspid / It’s swell though they tell me I’m maladjusted.” I want to meet the Disney exec who watched that scene and said, “We need these guys to write our music. Stat!” I mean the song mentions the Marquis de Sade. Really.

This movie fills me with a wonderful sense of nostalgia. It’s filled with many beloved faces from my childhood and evokes the wonderful “anything goes” attitude towards movies in 80’s. Like so many films released in the 80’s, this is not a kid’s movie but I’m sure many, many kids saw it. Ever heard the term “tough titty” used in a family film? In song? Well, here you go. And the special effects are breathtaking. They were all done by hand with puppets. Still reeling from the CGI suffocation of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, I miss the magic of puppets more than ever. Audrey II was made with such detail and texture and accuracy (even down to the lip synching), there are some moments when you will swear he is real. But then, he is real, having actually been built and brought to life on the set. Puppets always are. I don’t mean to dismiss computer effects completely; a lot of great movies would have been very different without them. But I’ve always thought computers and puppets could peacefully coexist and movies now seem to be made with the assumption that computer effects are better without question and that isn’t always the case, especially in a movie like Little Shop where Audrey II needs to look real. The 1960 version of Little Shop of Horrors recently joined the long list of movies to be remade or “updated for the effects age” as one article put it, though they were unfortunately talking about The Wizard of Oz (also on the list). No doubt Audrey II will be played by a computer effect and we’ll all be expected to think that’s better.

With its constant references to blood, sadomasochism, and murder, Little Shop of Horrors is an acquired taste. I don’t like to admit that, but it’s true. I once showed it to a friend of mine who loves musicals but hates horror movies. Seeing her initial reluctance, I innocently tried to convince her with: “But it’s not a horror movie. It’s a comedy! Look who’s in it!” She agreed to watch it and during every scene showing Seymour feeding Audrey II from cuts on his fingers (with musical accompaniment, of course), she looked like she was going to be sick. It’s very funny but also very dark and a little offbeat despite its mainstream cast. The jury’s still out on whether it can really be called a horror movie, but either way, it’s one of my favorites, sure to brighten up any day or montage.

Image Via: http://static.ulike.net/img/01_Little_Shop_of_Horrors.jpg

Possible Spoilers Below

P.S. Those familiar with Little Shop of Horrors are probably aware that the movie ends completely differently than the musical. The original ending was filmed but cut when test audience reacted negatively to it. Many now feel that the ending is a major weakness in an otherwise well-done movie. Frank Oz has said he hopes to one day rerelease the movie in theaters with the original ending restored. I really hope this comes to pass. Until then, a rough print of it is on YouTube.

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