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Little Shop of Horrors: In Color (with Mike Nelson Commentary), The
In the realm of DVD, there is nothing more commercially callous than the release of pathetic public domain prints on the supposedly preservationist digital format. Usually viewed as a cheap and easy way to flim flam a few bucks out of the gullible - and technologically ignorant - movie loving public, these 'Nth generation dubs of some less than stellar stock elements result in aluminum disc atrocities. They can take well-loved classics that somehow fell outside the legal limits of their copyright and turn them into sloppy cinematic sucker bets. It is the rare company that tries to clean up the image or offer something other than the film as their main selling point. More times than not, the overriding mentality is cheap and minimal. Legend Films, however, is one of those atypical entities. Using that lamented notion of colorization to bring new life to their individual movie offerings, the distributor actually cleans up its prints, and polishes the parameters of each release with interesting bonus features. The latest entry in their line is the Roger Corman comedy The Little Shop of Horrors. Amazingly, it is a movie that matches the corporate conceits of Legend Films fairly flawlessly.
Down on Skid Row, things are looking pretty pathetic for Mushnik's Flower Shop. Business is awful, and if things don't pick up soon, owner Gravis Mushnik will have to fire his only employees - the kind hearted (and empty headed) Audrey Fulquard and that bumbling buffoon, Seymour Krelboyne. When an inquisitive customer with a need to nosh carnations comes into the shop, Mushnik is manic. He desperately needs something to boast sales. The puckish petal lover suggests letting Seymour show off his unusual plant in the store. Something so odd as the bizarre bud is bound to drum up business. Sure enough, the idea works. Seymour's strange blossom is a hit, and soon the florist is flush with another kind of green stuff. But there is also a problem. Seymour's plant only responds to one kind of food - BLOOD! If the wimpy worker doesn't give it a nightly fix of claret, the pod peters out. And since it is now such a major merchandising hit, Seymour must do whatever he can, including killing, to maintain its horticultural health. With the police hot on his trail and his co-workers wondering about his sanity, it won't be long before Seymour succumbs to the twisted terror inside The Little Shop of Horrors.
Anyone looking for a seminal moment in the career of b-movie maverick Roger Corman need glance no further than to the films he made from 1959 to 1967. Perhaps the most prolific producer in the realm of cinema, the original indie icon was oddly selective regarding the projects that he himself would direct. Sometimes, his behind the lens involvement was the result of outright need (meaning, he couldn't find someone else to helm a picture). But there were other instances, starting with 1959's Bucket of Blood, where Corman's uniquely impish artistic sensibility seemed a perfect match for the material onscreen. While many fans champion his excellent Edgar Allan Poe adaptations (House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death being two neo-classics), it was his minor, throwaway efforts that still endure today - none more so than the story of a man-eating plant and the nebbish nerd who created him. The Little Shop of Horrors has grown beyond its darkly comic roots to become an entity unto itself. It has spawned outright copies (Harry Novak's softcore spoof Please Don't Eat My Mother) a major musical translation (the fantastic singing and dancing version by Howard Ashmen and Alan Menken) and a short-lived cartoon series (1991's Little Shop). Aside from his major studio effort The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, many instantly recognize this satiric tale of a skid row florist and his equally eccentric employees as one of the highlights of Corman's crafty career.
Sadly, the filmic fate of Little Shop has been tainted by its falling out of copyright. Without the power to protect his film, Corman has seen the purveyors of public domain ravage his little black comedy, releasing almost unwatchable versions to cash in on the various (VHS, DVD) medium crazes. Tracking the many releases would be nearly impossible, as multiple variations - bare bones, pseudo-special editions - have all found their way into the marketplace. Now Legend Films, notorious for rebooting the cinematic stain known as colorization, is adding this title to their previously released looks at other unprotected titles. As always, their major selling point is the adding of tints to these otherwise monochrome movies. While critically acclaimed efforts like the masterpiece Night of the Living Dead and masterful Carnival of Souls have suffered in the motion picture paintbox translation, other offerings, like Plan 9 from Outer Space and House on Haunted Hill have actually benefited from the hue-based reconfiguration. Now comes, perhaps, the best example of them all. With the inclusion of color, The Little Shop of Horrors stands out, not only as an example of early 60s low budget invention, but as a hilarious comedy with just the slightest hints of horror thrown in. While Corman has made better looking films, this new version sparkles with something significantly more important - wit.
Thanks to a wonderfully clever script by Charles B. Griffith (a career Corman-ite) and a bravura acting turn by the mighty Mel Welles, what could have been a sloppy, stupid scarefest resonates as one of the best offbeat comedies of the '60s. Packed with quotable dialogue ("It grows like a cold sore from the lip", "Where did you come to get mixed up with ten bees?") and loads of ingratiating idiosyncrasies (Seymour's hypochondriacal mother, the flower eating Burson Fouch), Little Shop starts out parodying Dragnet and ends up becoming an iconic entertainment all its own. The film is so full of bizarre characters, including the deranged dentist Dr. Farb, the pain loving patient Wilbur Force (essayed by a youthful and gangly Jack Nicholson), horticulturalist diva Hortense Feuchtwanger and the hooker with a heart of mold, Leonora Clyde that it's almost impossible to pick favorites. About the only blank slates are our hero, Seymour, and his sunny paramour Audrey. While Jonathan Haze and Jackie Joseph acquit themselves quite well, they just aren't as odd as the rest of the cast. Frankly, it would be hard to equal Welles whacky pidgin English, or Momma Krelboyne's medicine based meal plan, but as hero and heroine, they fit into the arcane machinery of Little Shop quite nicely. Indeed, had everyone here been certifiably unhinged, the entire movie would become mannered. Instead, it's a laugh out loud voyage into sunny surreality.
Back in the day, before Herschell Gordon Lewis and his Blood Feast turned gore into glorified movie fodder, the man-eating elements of Little Shop must have been far more frightening. Indeed, we see chunks of flesh fall into the open maw of our monster plant, and the notion of dealing in corpses and killing still had a nasty naiveté four decades ago. Today, the murders in this movie wouldn't warrant the slightest of raised eyebrows from the individuals in Standards and Practices. Indeed, the "horror" moniker is rather misleading, since the movie is really just a series of unfortunate events that lead to death. Seymour only bumps off one person outright - the rest of the deaths are the result of humorous happenstance. In fact, if the movie had to exist on its fear factors alone, you'd be hard pressed to consider it classic. But thanks to the undeniable charms of the delightful dialogue, Mel Welles' mumble mouthed radiance as storekeeper Gravis Mushnik, the compact creativity of the plotting, and the delightfully deadpan moments of insular insanity, The Little Shop of Horrors is truly a minor masterpiece, a film that gets funnier and more fulfilling every time you see it. Roger Corman may be remembered as a man who could make money within almost every motion picture genre, but his aesthetic legacy will undeniably be linked to this amazing movie long after his final budget sheet is balanced.
Decry their desire to colorize movies, but Legend Films does a dynamite job of remastering the monochrome image of The Little Shop of Horrors. The 1.33:1 image is almost pristine in its black and white components. There is a minor scratch or two, and a couple of insignificant moments of sloppy source editing, but overall, this 46 year old film has never looked better. Even more interesting, the colorization actually works here. Mushnik calls Fousch "my yellow-vested man" and we now can see the canary hues of that frequently referenced waistcoat. Though this critic never thought of her as a blond, hooker Leonara Clyde comes across as quite the bombshell bimbo in her groovy golden locks. The killer plant is a sensational study in greens, pinks and purples, while the gore is amplified nicely with the inclusion of deep red blood on the various body parts. While it's not necessary to the overall effectiveness of the film (most movies of the era work best in their original palette of presentation), the re-tinting of this title is not all that offensive. In fact, it's a lot of fun.
Frankly, discussing the sonic elements of a pre-'70s movie is rather pointless, since there is not much that can be done with a straight, shallow monaural soundtrack. Still, it has to be said that the Dolby Digital translation of the basic movie mix here is very good. There is minimal hiss, some excellent ambience, and the jerky jazz score by Fred Katz and Ronald Stein comes across in true hep cat fashion. In truth, it would be futile to create a multi-channel remaster of the sound. There is nothing onscreen to suggest that The Little Shop of Horrors would benefit from such a speaker sparking reconfiguration.
One of the main selling points that Legend uses to pitch its product to fans who might not otherwise cotton to a colorized film is the ongoing presence of ex-Mystery Science savant Mike Nelson. The former head writer of that classic cowtown puppet show is on hand, once again, to enliven the proceedings with his clever and cutting commentary track. In the past, Nelson has mixed fact with funny business to deliver a combination of insight and irony. Here, he's just cracking wise. His riffs are amiable and adroit, with several quips coming across as wonderfully witty, and his genial nature permeates the entire presentation. Since The Little Shop of Horrors doesn't take itself seriously at all, Nelson's nudging of the movie is not the cinematic sacrilege many associate with MST3K's original efforts. It matches Corman's mindset perfectly. The rest of the added elements are negligible at best. The man-eating plants piece is just an illustrated bad pun, while the gallery of actual killer foliage is amusing and informative.
For anyone looking for a near perfect presentation of the original Little Shop, this Legend Films DVD is the way to go. With a nearly immaculate transfer and the added bonus of Mike Nelson's nutty commentary, you get the best of both cinematic worlds. The colorization is creative and insignificant, not really ruining the film's insane tone with the adding of pigments. As a result, this revamping of the 1960 'boy-meets-girl, plant-eats-people' (to quote the ad copy) saga scores an easy Highly Recommended rating. It's as fresh and funny today as it was all those years ago. If ever another company was looking for a model to follow in the non-con job release of public domain titles, Legend Films would be high on the list of excellent examples. Along with their desire to remaster the movies they offer, they actually give fans bonus bang for their digital dollar. Roger Corman may not have envisioned this film lasting longer than an extended engagement at the local passion pit, but The Little Shop of Horrors has become one of the mainstays of the man's seemingly infinite career. With or without color, you'll definitely enjoy this jokey gemstone of b-movie madness.
Why wait until June! You can buy a copy of this terrific DVD now from Legend Films. Just click here for more details.
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