|Little Shop of Horrors (1986)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 23 May 2000|
From the animated opening menu, that slips onto the screen one vine-covered option at a time, it’s easy to pick up on the exuberant spirit of ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ The 1986 musical began life in drastically different form, as a 1960 ultra-low-budget horror comedy, directed in two days by Roger Corman. It turned up off-Broadway in 1981, reincarnated as a stage musical, which introduced the public at large to the brilliant talents of composer Alan Menken and his partner, the late writer/lyricist Howard Ashman.
Although the story of a fast-growing, man-eating plant from outer space in a Skid Row flower shop may sound like an unlikely focal point for singing and dancing, Menken, Ashman (who also adapted the screenplay) and director Frank Oz quickly demonstrate that it’s actually an irresistible premise.
Oz has chosen a hyper-colorful, super-stylized motif that lends itself extremely well to the surreal subject matter. He shows his chops straight off in Chapter 1, when dynamic "girl group" Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks and Tisha Campbell belt out the title number with killer ‘60s black pop harmonies. The ladies continue to wow us vocally in Chapter 2, as Oz turns a bird’s-eye view of city lights into a reflection in a gutter puddle, smashed by a dropped bottle.
The tale is simple. Luckless floral assistant Seymour (Rick Moranis) finds a strange-looking plant. The flytrap-like object develops a taste for blood – and the deep, jovial bass singing voice of Levi Stubbs (of The Four Tops fame). Seymour enters into a Faustian bargain with the creature known as Audrey II, but will he develop a conscience before the self-described "mean, green mother from outer space" destroys life as we know it?
Oz wrings the requisite melodramatic sincerity from his actors in the most improbable of situations, generating both convulsive laughter and questions as to how outrageous things are going to get. (Plenty.) Moranis couldn’t be more certifiably schnookish or plaintively endearing as Seymour; he also reveals a perfectly decent singing voice. Ellen Greene, reprising the role she created onstage of Seymour’s wide-eyed love interest, is memorably daffy as the sweet, phenomenally ethereal heroine. Steve Martin does a jaw-droppingly flamboyant supporting turn as a sadistic, motorcycle-riding dentist who, in Chapter 11, gets his own solo about how much he loves torturing his patients. Recalling his mother’s advice, he croons, "Go be a dentist/You have a talent for causing things pain/Go be a dentist/People will pay you to be inhumane …" It’s sublime insanity. Bill Murray has a cameo as a mashochistic dental patient and James Belushi and the late John Candy both turn up in small roles.
The major scene-stealer is, of course, the green and greedy Audrey II, nothing less than sensational as she boogies around in her flowerpot. Stubbs’ Chapter 13 booming rendition of "Feed Me!" should rattle your woofers (and tickle your funny bone) even as you admire Lyle Conway’s ingenious puppet-plant design.
The extras on the disk include some interesting outtakes – one of Martin accidentally plunging both hands through panes of glass makes you jump, even though you’re warned. Director Oz provides a friendly and informative commentary track. A surprising omission from the disk is the film’s original, darker ending. It’s discussed and described; we even here in some detail why the finale was reshot. However, it would be nice to see the footage for ourselves.
Actually, the climax does look less than thoroughly thought-out, but one can understand why the filmmakers decided against puncturing the ecstatic silly mood they’d created thus far. ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is a treat: sprightly, naughty in unexpected ways and still refreshingly unlike other musicals.