Updated: Mar 30
Little Shop of Horrors is one of the greatest musical-films of all time. Period. The campiness, humor, look, tone and its execution of most musical tropes are unparalleled, even with the tongue-firmly-in-cheek world of off-branded musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Sweeney Todd and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Its power is almost limitless, from the opening title crawl, to the final wink at the audience; Little Shop of Horrors performs above and beyond expectations of a musical that is generally referred to as, “the story of a boy, a girl and a man-eating plant.”
Based on the 1960 film, The Little Shop of Horrors and an Off-Off-Broadway play, which shared the dropping of the word “The” from its title, the 1986 film blended aspects from both mediums to form its story about a hapless flower shop assistant, the girl he adores, his boss, a demented sadist who works as a dentist and the mysterious plant that brings them all together or eats them. (Fun fact: the original 1960 film is considered a huge joke in the film world as it was made on the basis of a dare to see if a film could be shot in 2 days. It was. And that fact is gloriously apparent when you watch it). Howard Ashman, the writer of the original play, penned the script that Frank Oz brought to the screen. With a supporting cast of awesome cameos including: John Candy, Bill Murray and Christopher Guest (!!!), it almost feels more like a sketch comedy show with an overarching story that connects all the gags together. I would watch an entire movie of just Steve Martin’s sadistic, Orin Scrivello, DDS and Bill Murray’s masochistic Arthur Denton. Christopher Guest’s short appearance is almost too funny to watch and Jim Belushi’s late turn-up as licensing schmuck Patrick Martin, is the very definition of forced climax, but done with enough charm and bravado that it still plays honestly with the setting and characters involved.
While the main stars are all wonderful (you’ll never hear a bad word from my lips or fingertips about Rick Moranis; the man is a machine of comedic timing and grace), all love and admiration has to go to Ellen Greene’s, Audrey (I). She is such a great character and presence, and Greene executes her with almost zero show of trying. It all just seems so natural, even though you know no one would talk like that and no one would possibly be comfortable wearing that! Her singing voice is unique and still hits all the right notes (both musically and true to the character), but when she finally lets the chords out to play in “Suddenly Seymour,” you can practically see the show stopping. It’s no surprise that Greene was the originator of the Audrey character in the musical play version and was the only actor brought from the medium into the film version. The producers and filmmakers involved just didn’t believe there could possibly be someone out there that could do it better. They even considered Barbara Streisand for the role, but decided against it. Barbara Streisand! In 1986! That’s chops, man.
Then there’s the practically mind-numbing practical effects of Audrey II, the Levi Stubbs-voiced plant that causes all this mayhem. More than fifty performers were required to operate the multiple different versions of Audrey II, from cables in vines, to lip and head movement and more. Director Frank Oz was very particular about the mouth lining up with Stubbs dialogue and singing; he didn’t want any “hamburger flapping” when it came to audiences watching the performance. This proved insanely difficult for creature developers and performers alike, but the final product is stunning, and remains visually captivating even 30 years later. Audrey II feels real and alive, just as any of the other human performers do.
Lastly, let’s talked about the famed alternate ending. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you skip over to Youtube and look it up. It’s something else, alright. Oz originally intended to have the film share the Broadway musical’s ending, in which our two lovers are eaten by the evil space plant, who then proceeds to conquer the world. The final shot of multiple Audrey II’s ascending the Statue of Liberty while fighting off Army helicopters is one of the coolest things I never even thought I’d see. And if that sentence didn’t just give you goose-bumps, wake up, man. This is what life is all about. Apparently, the deaths of Seymour and Audrey (I) were so devastating to test audiences that Oz was forced to scrap the original finale, which cost over 5 million dollars (!!!) to make in the first place, and replace it with the happier ending that we’ve all come to know and love. Is either ending superior to the other? It’s tough to say. While the “happy ending” is perfect in its’ own regard, the effects-work and the cheeky darkness of the original ending is just too charming and, frankly, fucking cool to be beat. I can’t imagine how hard it was for everyone involved to scrap such a joyful, crazy ending. C’est la vie.
All and all, the question of if Little Shop of Horrors still stands up today, 30 years after its original release upon the unsuspecting world, isn’t really even a needed question. The film being set in the 1960’s allows for its timelessness to stay just that. All the jokes still land, the performances are all incredible and memorable and the songs are still as catchy as ever. And it also contains one of this writer’s personal favorite moments in film: when Seymour and Audrey (II) see Scrivello hit Audrey (I) and realize that he sure looks like plant food to them. Absolutely engaging on every level. It’s just that timeless.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He lives in Beacon, NY with his cat who is named after Kevin Bacon's character from Friday the 13th.