Continuing from the Reitman Ghosbusters film series, and Spaceballs, is yet another great Moranis film, Little Shop of Horrors, a rock musical horror comedy film directed by Frank Oz. It is a film adaptation of the off-Broadway musical comedy of the same name by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman. That Off-Broadway musical was based on the low-budget 1960 dark comedy film The Little Shop of Horrors, directed by Roger Corman. According to The Guardian‘s article, “My favourite film: Little Shop of Horrors“:
When we were younger, my sister and I seized on any excuse for singing, dancing and generally being a bit theatrical. We made up dance routines in the lounge to The Heat is on in Saigon from Miss Saigon, only vaguely aware that it is a song about marines buying prostitutes. As such, musicals and 60s girl groups (who were forever playing in my mother’s car) were a regular feature of my childhood aural experience, and they remain a firm part of my adult one.
So, since it married the two so perfectly, I was completely captivated the first time I saw Little Shop of Horrors. I don’t remember how old I was, but certainly not much older than its relaxed PG certificate permitted. I was drawn in, at the time, by the music and the bright colours. But as I grew older its distinctly more adult elements began to strike their own chords.
I should say now that, even if you aren’t a fan of musicals, please don’t instantly dismiss Little Shop. There’s so much more to it than people describing the minutia of their lives through song. With nods to sci-fi and B-movies, as well as its effective self-mockery, it’s an easy way to get acquainted with the musical comedy genre. And it doesn’t feature any children, which is a bonus.
Directed by Frank Oz, the film is based on the off-Broadway stage show of the same name, which in turn is based on a 1960 Roger Corman film, which it largely honours in terms of story. Seymour Krelborn, played by Rick Moranis – ever since immortalised as an 80s geek – is a downtrodden orphan working in Mr Mushnik’s flower shop and, like everyone else there, is desperately trying to find a way out of Skid Row.
When Seymour buys a curious plant from a Chinese man for $1.95, life in Skid Row gets more exciting. Suddenly he and his acquisition are the talk of the town. But only he knows that the plant, named Audrey II in honour of his colleague Audrey (whom he’s secretly in love with), is carnivorous – and will only feed on human blood.
As Audrey II grows, Seymour becomes more successful. Poverty becomes a thing of the past, and there’s a chance he might get the girl of his dreams – but only if he can keep supplying fresh blood to the plant, who is becoming increasingly demanding. Eventually the day comes when squeezing drops of blood from his own fingers doesn’t cut it any more, and Seymour must resort to drastic action. But as Audrey II is finally revealed to be a mean, green mother from outta space (intent on world domination no less), it’s up to Seymour to stop the evil weed.
There’s a strong supporting cast, with 80s stalwarts such as John Candy, James Belushi and Christopher Guest. And then of course there’s Bill Murray, absurdly brilliant as a masochistic dental patient, with Steve Martin playing Audrey’s boyfriend, sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello. It could be argued that Martin is the star of film, but he’s actually my least favourite character.
Nor did I ever want to be like Audrey, with her ridiculous blonde hair and glorious breasts. It was the three chorus girls – Ronette, Chiffon and Crystal – who caught my attention. They flit on and off screen, sometimes dressed as Skid Row natives but mostly dressed in glamorous matching outfits (my favourites are probably the blue polka numbers from the opening sequence) as they link scenes and story developments with songs full of rhythm – perfect for singing in the shower, which I still do frequently.
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are to be thanked for the lyrics and music respectively, with Ashman also writing the screenplay – though their names are probably more associated with late 80s and early 90s Disney films such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. For me, it’s the music that makes Little Shop so special. It draws on 60s rock’n’roll, doo-wop and swing, and I think there might even be a bit of calypso in there. My sister’s view is that it’s “the badass bone-ripping vocals” that make the film. And it’s true, the harmonies are sublime. The first time Audrey (played by Ellen Greene in the film as well as the off-Broadway and West End stage productions) properly lets rip, it’s magical; and then of course there’s Audrey II himself, voiced by Levi Stubbs from the Four Tops.
Little Shop is a love story. It’s also a story about conquering your demons and discovering the best you can be – even if it takes a blood-guzzling talking plant to get you there. That said, for me it’s not really about the story, it’s about the experience. Because from the second the liquor bottle in the brown paper bag hits the dirty puddle, and the first fast chords of the keyboard begin, I know I have 90 minutes of fabulousness ahead of me. I’ll be unashamedly dancing along once more.
But this is not to say that all of the content of the film wonderful, as, in particular, the voice actor for Audrey II, Levi Stubbs, is also African American.
What precisely does this imply? That the same characteristics of the plant (aggressive, violent, intimidating, manipulating, invasive, and murderous; “mean green mother”) are all psychologically connected to the audience, with that class of people.
Consider the Doctor Who episode, The Woman Who Lived, with the character, Leandro, who is played also by the Ariyon Bakare.
Leandro behaved intimidating (to the Doctor, and local humans), manipulative (to Lady Me), and functioned much like a background character.
Additionally, the Greek chorus of three African American woman (who observe the story, but never actually take part in it) bears similarity to the Hercules 1997 Disney animated film.
According to The New York Times review:
WHO could have imagined that ”Little Shop of Horrors,” the 1960 comic horror film shot by Roger Corman in two days’ time, would continue to grow bigger, mightier and more formidable, much like the man-eating plant that is its unsung star? From Mr. Corman’s charming throwaway film to the Off Broadway stage success, ”Little Shop of Horrors” has evolved into a full-blown movie musical, and quite a winning one. As directed by the Muppet master Frank Oz, this large-scale new film version has just the right mixture of playfulness, tunefulness and blood lust. Never has any screen killer done his job as innocently as Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), the florist’s assistant who tries so hard to accommodate the large, potted creature living in the basement of his ”God- and customer-forsaken” shop that he cannot help thinking of passers-by as plant food.
”Little Shop of Horrors,” which opens today at the Criterion Center and other theaters, isn’t uniformly entertaining, nor is its score always entirely audible; the musical dubbing is at times very awkward. But its best moments are delightful enough to make the slow stretches unimportant. Chief among the former is Steve Martin’s show-stopping appearance as Orin Scrivello, the meanest dentist on the planet, and a man who is quickly and justifiably used as Miracle-Gro. Mr. Martin’s solo number has been hilariously staged, as he combines Elvis Presley posturing with a wonderfully wicked delivery of phrases like ”root canal.” Seldom has one single film sequence, in which Mr. Martin gleefully terrifies his patients and brandishes the most ghastly array of instruments, done as much to set back the integrity of an entire profession.
The principals of ”Little Shop of Horrors” are the timid Seymour, his irascible boss Mushnick (Vincent Gardenia) and his co-worker Audrey (Ellen Greene), who has done everything possible to heighten her resemblance to cotton candy. Mr. Moranis in particular makes an entertaining straight man, moping around the shop and perking up unreasonably at the sight of Audrey, who often sports the bruises that are the sadistic dentist’s calling cards. But the film’s real star is Audrey II, who was designed and created by Lyle Conway and possesses a fabulously versatile maw. The voice that accompanies Audrey II’s lip-smacking belongs to none other than Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops, who makes Audrey II’s every nasty, lascivious nuance come alive. Mr. Stubbs does a spectacular job, and deserves much more prominent billing than he has received here.
In cameo roles, ”Little Shop of Horrors” features just about everyone who’s anyone in hip movie comedy of the moment: John Candy as a demented disk jockey who’s no less willing to interview Seymour than he is any other nut in town, James Belushi as one of the numerous individuals who sense the possibilities in exploiting Audrey II, Christopher Guest as the shop’s first customer in ages. Bill Murray is the perfect spoilsport as the patient who enjoys the dentist’s evil antics even more than he does, a role originated by the very young Jack Nicholson. Tichina Arnold, Tisha Campbell and Michelle Weeks sashay through the film as Crystal, Chiffon and Ronette, one of the only known Greek choruses to perform doo-wop material.
Mr. Oz has opened up the musical quite effectively, giving the film a busy and genuinely three-dimensional look. Among the outstanding production numbers are Audrey’s vision of a life with Seymour straight out of Better Homes and Gardens -twin beds and all – and Seymour’s account of how he bought Audrey II just after a solar eclipse, from the same sort of shady character as the one who peddled the first Gremlin. Among Howard Ashman’s better lyrics for Alan Menken’s score are those for the worried Seymour’s complaint to Audrey II: ”I’ve given you sunlight/I’ve given you rain/Looks like you’re not happy/’Less I open a vein.” It’s not hard to understand this good-natured material’s durability, or why Mr. Oz has been able to give it such a satisfactory new spin.