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Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The
The Little Shop of Horrors played mostly in grindhouse theaters but soon became famous as a must-see movie, the one with the carnivorous plant that yelled "Feed Me!" One of the earliest movies that can be truly be called a 'cult' film, this tiny production has collected a number of myths that are seldom refuted. It's easily Roger Corman's funniest comedy; it's the best example of the late 50s trend toward morbid-but-mild 'sick' humor. It also marks an abrupt end to low-budget Wildcat Hollywood moviemaking as practiced before 1960.
Legend Films' release is perhaps the first video version of The Little Shop of Horrors of reasonable quality. More on that below.
The Little Shop of Horrors is still a laugh riot, thanks to an engagingly non- PC playscript by Charles B. Griffith, Roger Corman's least-honored major creative contributor. Griffith started early with Corman and provided the scripts for a tall stack of Corman's better-known early exploitation efforts, including It Conquered the World, Not of This Earth, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Rock All Night and the beatnik precursor to The Little Shop of Horrors, A Bucket of Blood. In 1959, Griffith's sense of humor would be called Off Base, or Twisted, the kind of thing the readers of Mad Magazine would pick up on. The posters for A Bucket of Blood even called itself "...sick, sick, sick ..." Corman's earlier efforts targeted young audiences interested in monsters and juvenile delinquents, but these new pictures went for a slightly more sophisticated crowd. The jokes were Sophomoric Choice Cuts that could be appreciated by the college crowd and hipsters into foreign films and offbeat entertainment. 1
The Little Shop of Horrors strikes a tone of anarchic absurdity from the start. Its characters are broad stereotypes played to perfection. Jonathan Haze is adequate as the whiney, empty-headed Seymour but Jackie Joseph is both sexy and adorable as the ditzy Audrey, always fumbling her diction and finding a rainbow in every disappointment. Griffith's script is thick with Jewish humor, making Mel Welles' Gravis Mushnik a fulminating volcano of frustrated avarice. The flower merchant wants the klutzy Seymour out of his shop until Audrey Jr. attracts a big contract for a Rose Bowl float from a pair of giggly teens (Tammy Windsor and Toby Michaels). At that point Gravis gives Seymour a warm hug: "I have a son!" Viewers sensitive to Jewish stereotypes may or may not find Mushnik a loveable curmudgeon. His typical client is an old wailing widow who needs flowers daily for funerals. She comes in looking for attention, and perhaps a discount.
Corman's permanent actor-fixture Dick Miller has the smoothest comedy material as a flower-eating freak who seems to represent the growing counterculture.: "Do you want I should wrap them?" asks Mushnik. "No, I'll eat 'em here!" The Little Shop of Horrors does without the rather tired beatnik characters of Bucket of Blood but makes up for them by encouraging 'free expression,' California-style. Everybody is into their own thing - flowers, funerals, money.
The most famous bit in the picture involves Seymour's accidental killing of Dentist Pheobus Farb (John Herman Shaner). Seymour is forced to impersonate Dr. Farb and receive his next patient, who happens to be Wilbur Force (Jack Nicholson in manic mode), an ultra-masochist who reads Pain magazine and turns down novocaine because "It dulls the senses." Nicholson's ravings in the dentist's chair ("Owwwwwwwww ...no! DON'T STOP!") seem inspired by the wilder comedy record albums of the day - we wouldn't see this side of Nicholson again for another ten years.
Griffith's script also has time to indulge a spot-on takeoff on understated Dragnet patter introducing detectives Joe Fink and Frank Stoolie (Wally Campo and Jack Warford). They rattle off deadpan small-talk that stays unemotional even when they discuss the fact that one of Frank's kids killed himself playing with matches over the weekend.
There are also some abbreviated bits of business with a snooty lady from a flower society and a desperate burglar (writer Griffiths, who also plays a number of other bits), but most of the action deals with Seymour's horticultural problem. Seymour's arguments with Audrey Jr. are like a Jerry Lewis stand-up comedy routine, enlivened by the hungry plant's persistent focus on FOOD. It's a broad statement on the essential law of creation: "Life (that is, Hunger) Will Find a Way." It's also a great expression of the counterculture's ability to 'take one thing at a time,' as does Maynard G. Krebs, the patron saint of TV's most Griffith-like show The Loves of Dobie Gillis. Audrey Jr. hasn't got time for speeches about morality, practicality or other small talk. It just wants to eat NOW, like any cool cat with a case of the munchies.
The Little Shop of Horrors only begins to crumble at the very end, after one too many bad chase scenes through junkyards filled with tires and toilets (hey, like, that's symbolic of society, man). The downbeat ending is perhaps indicated, but we'd just as soon have Seymour, Audrey and maybe even Audrey Jr. live happily ever after.
The Little Shop of Horrors has maybe 1/100th of the production value that went into the 1986 musical remake, itself an adaptation of a stage musical re-thinking of Corman and Griffith's classic show. But there's something uniquely wonderful about this little gem, even when it occasionally bogs down in jokes about alcoholic mothers and frustrated hookers.
We've all read that the movie took only two days to film. When interviewed, Roger Corman once said that the scene in the dentist's office was supposed to be longer, but the filming was so hasty that the borrowed chair and drill tower assembly wasn't even bolted to the floor. We can see the whole shebang fall over in the last shot. Rather than reset, Corman just declared the scene finished and moved on!
We're also told that The Little Shop of Horrors could be filmed so quickly because it was rehearsed to perfection beforehand and that Corman used two cameras to film the major scenes in the flower shop. As hard as it is for us to imagine Corman springing for two cameras and burning film he knows he won't use, this seems to have been the case. The continuity matches between the two cameras are flawless.
But a movie made in two days? That claim came into question when actress Jackie Joseph appeared in a local TV channel interview with Los Angeles movie host Tom Hatten. Asked how they could film Little Shop so quickly, Joseph said this: Corman was planning to shoot in January of 1960 for maybe a week or a little more. It was one of his self-financed "Filmgroup" productions. Then he found out that new Screen Actors' Guild rules would come into effect on January 1, 1960: Productions like his own filming under Guild scrutiny would no longer be able to pay actors under the table, or 'buy them out' for undisclosed sums. Corman would also find it impossible to make the special deals for which he was famous, encouraging talent to work for free for the experience. From here on in, Guild actors would have to at least charge minimum rates, and in most circumstances they'd be eligible for residuals.
Instead of working out of pocket and from his own memory, all contracts would have to be on paper. Corman would have to report to the Guilds, and worst of all, he'd have to maintain a permanent office with overhead to oversee the paperwork. All of this accountability would cost real money. Corman had to get Little Shop in the can before New Years or change the way he did business.
Because of various commitments, Corman couldn't start until after Christmas Day. He hired his actors for a week and used heavy rehearsals to cut down on filming time. Ms. Joseph (who was not telling this story out of spite) said that the filming went very quickly and smoothly with the two-camera system. The silent sequences of Seymour roaming around skid row and the junkyards were all filmed in one night the next week, by Charles Griffith.
Actually, the New Guild guidelines had an effect on Hollywood filmmaking far beyond The Little Shop of Horrors. Corman's personal solution was to flee the jurisdiction of the Guilds. His next Filmgroup productions were made in Greece and Puerto Rico. Corman's claim that he never lost money was probably founded on the principle of never putting his money at risk, which is impossible when playing by normal Hollywood rules. Anyone trying to produce a low-budget film through the official system finds that the industry's idea of low-budget is anything under a million dollars. 2
In a way, the new Guild guidelines forced Corman to upgrade his career, becoming a director first and a producer second. American-International felt the squeeze as well: With the bottom line for moviemaking raised, it no longer made sense to shoot cheap double features in B&W. AIP and Corman leaped from crummy drive-in product to relatively classy drive-in product: The Panavison/Pathecolor Edgar Allan Poe films, the fairly elaborate Jules Verne film Master of the World. If AIP imported an Italian sword-n-sandal picture, it had better be in widescreen and color. The days of Hollywood-produced movies with titles like Date Bait and Attack of the Giant Leeches were soon to end. Corman once again proved himself adaptable to the changing business climate, and prevailed.
Legend's DVD of The Little Shop of Horrors is desirable because it has a good B&W transfer of the original feature, intact and in good shape, with clear audio. The movie has been around on miserable public domain copies for so long, Savant thought he'd never find a decent video version. Corman took out a trade ad a long time ago to proclaim that his film wasn't in the public domain, but with little effect. Some sources have stated that the producer didn't fully copyright any of his Filmgroup productions, to avoid the cost of sending a print to the Library of Congress.
Legend's modus operandi is the colorization of public domain films, and this title gets treated almost identically to their House on Haunted Hill from last year. As paint-by-numbers video goes, it's not bad, although Savant will never get used to the 'one orange fits all' hue assignment for human faces. The purist in me can overlook the colorized version when there's a decent B&W alternative to be enjoyed. The transfer isn't 16:9 enhanced, but as Gravis Mushnik might say, "Is it perfect you should be wanting?"
The extras are pretty much a wash. Mike Nelson's commentary is a slack set of jokes (The Filmgroup logo is likened unto a set of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups) that ignore the fact that the original is a comedy classic. It's difficult to make witless observations about something that's genuinely brilliant, and come off as anything but an idiot. Actually, the old MSTK3000 could occasionally get away with just that by being extremely clever, but nothing of the kind happens here. Nelson decides that Gravis Mushnik is a 'growly old bear' and proceeds to make lame bear jokes. It's that bad.
A "Gallery of Killer Plants" is a no-kidding look at real insect-eating greenery. "Man-Eating Plants" is an ill-judged non-joke betrayed by the hyphen in the word "Man-eating." True to form, Legend 'enhances' the film credits on the box by adding six Legend producers and art directors as if they were creatives responsible for The Little Shop of Horrors. I tell ya, it's tough work writing notes to the colorization people in India. Like I say, there's a good, plain B&W transfer of this funny film on Legend's disc to make the rest of the nonsense bearable.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Little Shop of Horrors rates:
Video: Very Good (B&W Version)
Sound: Good +
Supplements: Colorized version, comedy commentary by Mike Nelson, Gallery of Killer Plants, Man-Eating Plant gag short.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 31, 2006
2. Savant knows what it was like to try and make a cheap movie under the Hollywood radar. In the middle 70s I was an editor on an independent children's film called Lost on Paradise Island. We cut it in the back room of an editorial house and were told to keep a low profile. When we went to mix sessions, my producer would always be on the lookout for the city's 'business agents' -- basically operatives skulking about trying to nail producers who didn't take out appropriate business licenses. If my producer had some imagination (and trusted me) he should have had me pretend I was making a student film as a cover project!
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