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Alan Menken and Howard Ashman had a hit with a clever 1982 Off-Broadway musical play adapted from the classic Roger Corman/Charles B. Griffith movie The Little Shop of Horrors. The B&W original from 1960 is a distinctively low-rent, wickedly funny monster movie satire rooted in the 'sick' humor of the time. Its hero Seymour Krelboin is a pathetic loser whose love for an air-headed co-worker in a Skid Row flower shop can't begin to redeem his sordid crimes. A comedy in which almost everybody dies, Corman's film is a must-see relic of the beatnik & sputnik years, famous for its low budget and brief shooting schedule.
Menken and Ashman's upbeat musical adaptation returned to the screen in 1986 as the high-budgeted Little Shop of Horrors. The movie retains the play's nostalgia for late '50s / early '60s pop music, a fad still going strong a decade after Grease. The Skid Row setting is now a setting for musical madness, with the early-Motown girl group (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, Tisha Campbell) interrupting frequently to sing a commentary on the strange tale of the botanist (a regular Luther Glendale?) who comes upon an all-devouring monster.
With the addition of the 'Motown' chorus and the elimination of a subplot with a hypochondriac mother, Little Shop of Horrors follows the original version rather closely. Orphan Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) is the downtrodden underling in Mushnik's Flower Shop, and the whipping boy of the pessimistic Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia). Hoping to win the attention of the sweet clerk Audrey (Ellen Greene), Seymour discovers a plant he calls Audrey II. The novelty brings new customers and business success to Mushnik's, so Seymour's prospects take a turn for the better. Audrey is flattered, but she still goes out on dates with the psychotic, sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello (Steve Martin). To his dismay, Seymour discovers that his plant talks (voice: Levi Stubbs) and that it needs human blood to live. It grows and grows, demanding that Seymour commit murders to provide a steady diet. Although Audrey is now singing of her new love ("Suddenly Seymour"), Audrey II has become a gigantic, powerful and intimidating presence in Seymour's life, a megalomaniac monster proclaiming itself a "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space."
To direct the movie David Geffen chose the perfectionist Frank Oz, whose earlier films The Dark Crystal and The Muppets Take Manhattan wedded film special effects and the puppetry brilliance of Jim Henson's Muppet shows. Little Shop of Horrors is a masterwork of design and technique -- the colorful sets are exciting in themselves - that makes us feel that real artisans are at work. The designers (Roy Walker, Steve Spence, Tessa Davies, Marit Allen) create a candy-colored inner city world, a Skid Row glamorized by the upbeat music score and peppy songs. The special effects utilized to animate Audrey II are phenomenal. Basically a giant melon-like mouth atop a tangle of vine-tentacles, the monster is a wonder of hydraulics and robotics. How does it move so fast, and sing so articulately? We're told that the talking and musical scenes were filmed at half speed, with the playback slowed accordingly. This enabled the (still phenomenal) robotics to work in slow motion, and keep up with the action. The R&D to make this Audrey II monster move so well must have been a killer.
The casting is nearly perfect as well. Straight from success in Ghostbusters, Rick Moranis is marvelous as the eternal loser Seymour Krelborn. Cursed with the face of a confused 12 year-old, Seymour harbors the spirit and ambition of a great man. Yes, he goes down the wrong path, but it's not like he's killing people right and left. They just keep dying on him -- what's a guy to do? Also inspired is Ellen Greene of the original Off-Broadway cast; she's a funny comedienne, a soulful sweetheart and a powerhouse when singing. Vincent Gardenia is just fine but his Mushnik will never topple the impression of Mel Welles back in 1960, a more grating Jewish stereotype who talked almost completely in malapropisms.
Producer David Geffen stacks the deck with guest bits for characters that on stage were played by one actor. Steve Martin has the biggest sidebar role (and a good song) as the crazed dentist, while Bill Murray takes on the old Jack Nicholson part as the dental patient (who did not appear in the stage version). John Candy, James Belushi and Paul Dooley (cut from the Theatrical version) are in there punching as well. Making a big impact as the impossibly impressed first admirer of Audrey II is Christopher Guest.
Little Shop of Horrors became a Home Video controversy back when Warner released the film as one of its early offerings in the new DVD format. An extra on the flipper disc was a B&W print of the film's notorious alternate ending, the one that followed the original stage ending. When producer David Geffen saw this, he had the entire run of discs recalled. He'd not given permission for the ending to be revealed and wanted to save it for a future release, to wit, this release. I reported on this in 1998 after a friendly MGM Home Video executive nabbed an un-recalled copy for me: Little Shop of Reshoots.
The original conclusion of Little Shop is a romantic downer. This grim ending is followed by the rock song "Don't Feed the Plants", which describes a giant monster rally onslaught "all across America". Laughing like maniacs, colossal Godzilla-like Audreys destroy New York City. In terms of monsterrific production value, the sequence is more elaborate, more beautifully photographed and funnier than any city-stomping monster movie yet (well, one show may still be funnier). After previews, this conclusion was abandoned and a new, less lethal one filmed at great expense. The 1998 work print looked pretty ragged, but the Director's Cut option on this new Blu-ray gives us the grandiose finish in beautiful color, with all its effects finished. It's really impressive, a monster movie lovers' dream.
The kicker is that the disastrous preview screenings proved Geffen to be right in the first place: the 'everybody dies' finish is no fun at all. With the story at its logical end the big "Don't Feed the Plants" finale plays as an unwelcome addition, as if a new movie were starting. As glad as we are to see this incredible production number (and a scene where promoter Paul Dooley gets the idea of marketing little Audrey II's all over the country), the movie seems much more balanced in the Theatrical cut.
The tragedy is that there's no reason why most or at least part of the fantastic scene couldn't have been saved. Seymour has daydreams of his hoped-for white picket fence future with Audrey I, dreams presented more or less as Tim Burton might imagine them. Why not give Seymour a nightmare scene earlier in the film, in which his botanical creation multiplies and runs wild?
Warner Home video's Blu-ray of Little Shop of Horrors is a great rendition of this bouncy, fun and reasonably family friendly monster musical. The colors pop and the audio track gives us all the songs in full DTS HD Master Audio 5.1.
The extras this time around are hopefully Geffen-approved. Frank Oz's commentary is on both the Theatrical cut and the twenty-minute extension on the Director's Cut. A new featurette talks about the Director's Cut, while the behind-the-scenes docu and outtakes & deleted scenes gag reel are retained from the first DVD. Trailers round out the program. Warners' presentation comes in a souvenir book package, with a 36-page color brochure packed with color stills from the production.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Little Shop of Horrors Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.