Note: The film portion of this review is the same as my Blu-Ray review of Little Shop of Horrors: The Director's Cut.
The original Little Shop of Horrors, made in 1960 and featuring Jack Nicholson's film debut, was a Hollywood joke; someone told producer Roger Corman it was impossible to shoot a whole movie in 2 days, and Corman decided to prove otherwise. In 1982, the film was adapted into an Off-Broadway play by Howard Ashman, with music by Alan Menken (lyrics by Ashman), and music mogul David Geffen producing. The success of the stage version got Geffen thinking about a film, which he hoped would be produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Martin Scorsese. Instead, he got director Frank Oz, who created a big screen version that was faithful to Ashman's adaptation, until a spectacular ending featuring six months of incredible model and miniature work was trashed by test audiences and was lopped out in favor of a reshoot. In 1998, a black-and-white version of that ending with an incomplete sound mix appeared on the film's DVD debut, only for Geffen to yank it from stores a week later. That DVD was still fetching about $100 as recently as last year, but Warner and Geffen have finally given the ending a full restoration, re-integrated into the feature film on this new "Director's Cut" DVD.
Rick Moranis plays Seymour, a wimpy assistant at a moldering plant shop run by Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia). In his free time, he collects strange and unusual plants, and his newest is the weirdest yet: a mysterious flytrap-like plant he names Audrey II, after his lovely but equally meek co-worker Audrey (Ellen Greene). Placing the plant in the window turns Mr. Mushnik's business around, and Audrey I is thrilled for Seymour's newfound success, but Seymour quickly discovers that Audrey II has a terrible diet...blood. For awhile, the plant is happy with the drops from poor Seymour's fingers, but by the time Audrey II is several feet tall and talks (with the voice of The Four Tops' Levi Stubbs), Seymour is forced to face that he's out of non-lethal feeding options.
Three things form the heart and soul of Little Shop of Horrors. First and foremost, obviously, is the music, and the music by Menken and Ashman is just the right blend of retro earnestness and wicked black comedy. The film opens with a '60s-flavored tune by the film's Greek chorus, Ronette (Michelle Weeks), Crystal (Tichina Arnold), and Chiffon (Tisha Campbell), before diving into the longing rat-race beat of "Skid Row (Downtown)." Later, the the duo infuse their comic notes with earnest emotion in "Somewhere That's Green" and the simple-yet-sweet duet "Suddenly Seymour." Of course, Audrey II gets a chance to shine as well, and Stubbs performs "Feed Me (Get It)" and "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" with an infectious wild-man enthusiasm.
Then again, the quality of music coming out of the plant wouldn't mean much if the plant didn't work. To that end, Oz has assembled a team of crack model makers and puppeteers who bring Audrey II to life in such a natural way that the viewer hardly thinks about the gargantuan special effects effort that went into the picture at all. It's not that the "mean green mother from outer space" comes to life convincingly, exactly -- Audrey II's rubbery skin and distinctly puppet-like movement are a constant subconscious reminder that it's different than a real plant -- but it feels like it belongs in the intentionally artificial environment around it. Oz's set looks like a set, giving the film a hint of the original Off-Broadway flavor, and Audrey II fits right in with that aesthetic.
Oz's spectacular cast is the final piece of the puzzle. Rick Moranis is fine as Seymour, handling the singing fairly well, and the film's laundry list of guest stars and cameos, including Steve Martin as Audrey I's sadistic dentist boyfriend, John Candy as a goofy radio DJ, and Bill Murray as a creepy dental patient, are all fantastic. For me, though, it's Ellen Greene, who originated the role of Audrey on stage, who makes the film soar. She clearly loves the character, and when she sings, it's like a window opens into Audrey: it may be cheesy, but you understand her hopes and dreams, and you see why Seymour pines for her. It takes a special kind of comic touch to make a love for kitchen appliances tug at the hearstrings, but she's got it.
As a viewer seeing Little Shop of Horrors for the first time with the release of the Director's Cut, the original ending ending is 100% the way to go. (Spoilers ahead.) The theatrical cut ending is a decent compromise on paper, but it's obvious that Oz's heart wasn't in it; the comic and musical timing is off ("Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" is shorter and arranged differently in the theatrical cut, much to its detriment), James Belushi is a weak replacement for Paul Dooley, and the "happily ever after" for Seymour and Audrey feels like an afterthought. Compared to Greene's heartbreaking reprise of "Somewhere That's Green", the complete edit of "Mean Green Mother", and that incredible, incredible modelwork, there's no comparison. Fans who have grown up with the original ending may end up preferring what they've known, but even if neither cut of the film is perfect ("Don't Feed the Plants" is not one of the film's better songs), the director's cut is a complete, invested vision, and anyone who likes Little Shop owes it to themselves to see it in finished form.
Little Shop of Horrors is offered on DVD with simple but colorful new artwork. My only nitpick about the design is that the layout seems very strange: the title is very small, the actors' names are at the bottom, and weirdest of all, they've randomly thrown on a picture of John Candy instead of Vincent Gardenia. Yeah, sure, Candy's more famous, but even though the names are not juxtaposed with the pictures, it's strange to have Gardenia's name on the cover but not his photo (not to mention, if they were gonna add one of the cameos to the cover, I'd think it'd be Murray). The disc comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case (the kind that uses less plastic, not the kind with holes punched in it), and there is no insert inside the case.
The Video and Audio
The new high-def transfer for Little Shop's theatrical cut and the restoration of the ending appear to have been done at different times. As a result, this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a mixed bag. In brighter lighting, colors are nicely rendered, but when the set is darker (which is often), there's some black crush that makes the overall transfer seem murkier than intended (although, if Skid Row really is such an oppressive place, maybe it is supposed to be dark). A hint of grain is visible at all times, and optical shots are extra-grainy, but I'd say this looks nicely filmic for a standard-def presentation. I don't have the old theatrical cut DVD to compare, but despite a few nitpicks, this should be a nice upgrade from that disc (if not a wild revelation).
A Dolby Digital 5.1 track treats Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's music just right. Each one of their jaunty compositions bursts out of the surround channels with a renewed vigor and liveliness that should make even the pickiest audiophile smile. Dialogue sounds natural, with that hint of echo from the spacious soundstages the film was shot on. The new ending, which was newly mixed for this release, sounds every bit as spectacular as it would have if it were finished for theaters. No complaints whatsoever about the sound. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
"Frank Oz and Little Shop of Horrors: The Director's Cut" (10:41) is a nice featurette that goes in depth with Oz and model effects supervisor Richard Conway about what went into the original ending, why it was chopped, and their feelings on both versions. The alternate ending (22:01) is also presented separately from the feature, but, for some reason, only with commentary by Frank Oz running over it (the package calls it "optional," but it is not). This is doubly confusing, as the commentary in question is the track from the infamous recalled 1998 release of the DVD, so Oz frequently makes reference to the fact that the sound and effects are not finished or in color.
The disc also contains some of the key extras from the original release, including the UK TV special "A Story of Little Shop of Horrors" (23:04, SD), a gallery of outtakes and deleted scenes (8:42), with or without optional commentary by Frank Oz, and two theatrical trailers (1:09, 2:07). Oz's commentary, which was designed for the theatrical cut of the picture, is not included.
Considering all the content available (as included on the Blu-Ray), I'm not sure Warner has made the right decisions with this DVD edition of Little Shop. Although I completely prefer this new cut of the film, I think many fans might pick up this disc and feel frustrated that the original version is not included via branching. Since the new ending with commentary over it is redundant, dated, and not very useful, I don't know why Warner didn't ditch it in favor of including both cuts on the DVD. Alternatively, they could've released the disc as a two-disc set, and just included the theatrical cut DVD in the package. Like the Blu-Ray, the disc is also missing the isolated score track from that release, and it would've also been great to hear from the cast and crew in some new interviews, but that's moving into wishful thinking territory.
Although this DVD release doesn't contain both cuts of the film like its Blu-Ray counterpart, this makes for a nice companion disc to the original DVD, and with a nice low price point ($12 or even $10 in some places), fans shouldn't hesitate to rush out and buy it. Highly recommended.
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