I fell in love with Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors before I even saw a single frame of the film in December 1986. My mom’s boyfriend at the time worked for the Warner Bros. distribution center in Illinois, and sometime in the fall, he brought home an advanced copy of the soundtrack to Oz’s adaptation of the popular off-Broadway show, which of course was originally based on Roger Corman’s 1960 horror movie that featured performances from the likes of Dick Miller and Jack Nicholson.
And as I spent countless hours laying on my bedroom floor, humming along to the different songs (and singing the swear words whenever I thought I could get away with it), Little Shop of Horrors transported me to a place where underdogs could overcome the odds, alien plants could sing and craved human blood, and Steve Martin was a demented motorcycle-riding dentist addicted to nitrous oxide and always looking to inflict some pain.
Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors movie musical was remarkable for many reasons: the stunning practical effects that brought to life the Audrey II plant, the rousing musical numbers, as well as a brilliantly comedic cast that hit all the right humorous and musical beats, providing Little Shop with a sense of humanity and pathos that grounded the otherwise outlandish tale about a ginormous man-eating alien plant.
But for me, the reason why Oz’s adaptation still remains one of my very favorite movie musicals ever, and is such a standout effort during an incredible year of cinema, is that Little Shop of Horrors was one of the first movies that made me feel like even though I was a poor kid growing up in a trailer park, anything was possible. It taught me that my current situation didn’t necessarily define my path in life, because after all, if Seymour and Audrey could survive against Audrey II and escape Skid Row, then maybe a kid from a trailer park could also have a shot at finding a better life, too.
Little Shop of Horrors follows a florist by the name of Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), who works at Mushnik’s Flower Shop with a lovely floral designer named Audrey (Ellen Greene) and his boss, Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia). As the owner of a struggling business located in a rundown neighborhood known as Skid Row, Mushnik is just about to close his doors forever, but changes his mind once Seymour shows him a “strange and unusual” plant he discovered during a recent solar eclipse that might be a good way to bring in business. The plant, which Seymour dubbed “Audrey II”, attracts customers immediately (the first patron being played by the always great Christopher Guest), and soon Mushnik and his ragtag employees begin to see things turn around in a big way for their flower shop.
Of course, we all know that kind of success usually has a hefty price tag attached to it, as Seymour’s rise to fame comes with a little bloodshed once he realizes his flora requires human plasma in order to live. At first, Seymour uses his own blood to satiate Audrey II, but as the plant continues to grow in size, so does his appetite, and soon Seymour finds himself a slave to his discovery’s voracious appetite and forced to commit a few acts of murder to keep the monstrosity happy.
With a background working with often fantastical material (The Dark Crystal and The Muppets Take Manhattan are two other Oz-helmed favorites of mine), the man who has lent his vocal talents to Yoda (and countless other characters) for over 30 years was a great choice to bring this iteration of Little Shop of Horrors to the big screen in the mid-1980s. His work in the puppet-based arts was even legendary at that point in his career, and his ability to incorporate human characters with those made of felt and fuzz was utterly flawless.
To pen the script, Oz smartly utilized writer Howard Ashman, who had been responsible for crafting the story of the 1982 Little Shop of Horrors stage production. Ashman was very close to the source material and knew why theatrical audiences loved these characters as much as they did, so he funneled those character moments into the big screen versions of Seymour and Audrey to great success, because you cannot watch Little Shop of Horrors and not completely fall in love with the film’s hero and his dream girl.
For this iteration of Little Shop of Horrors, both Oz and Ashman fully embraced a “Motown on Broadway” feel for the film’s melodies, keeping in several of the theatrical production’s musical numbers, including “Skid Row (Downtown)”, “Grow For Me”, “Somewhere That’s Green”, and “Suddenly Seymour”, and they also amended a few of the original songs into new styles for the film version. The landmark song for Little Shop of Horrors would end up being “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”, performed by The Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs, who also contributed his vocal talents and sassiness to the character of Audrey II. The song even garnered an Oscar nomination, but due to its content, the song’s lyrics at the awards ceremony had to be heavily edited (ah, much simpler times back then), but it did feature an oversized Audrey II puppet, which was really rad to see on TV nonetheless.
Oz smartly embraced Little Shop of Horrors’ live theater roots in almost every way conceivable, and even found a way to make it blend perfectly with his cinematic approach. The film’s sets, which were built at the famous Pinewood Studios in England, felt more in line with movie musicals from the ’50s and ’60s, which paired nicely with the timelessness of the script. Sure, there may be other movie musicals that feel more polished than Little Shop does, but the low-fi stage production approach adds so much overall, to the point where you feel like you really are watching a musical unfold right before your very eyes in a theatre, making it a truly special experience.
A highlight of Little Shop of Horrors for me has always been Crystal, Ronnette, and Chiffon (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, Tisha Campbell), a trio of street urchins who act as the story’s chorus, often commenting on what happens to the characters around them and acting as a narrative thread from beginning to end. They were characters Ashman used in his stage play version of Little Shop of Horrors, and incorporating them into Oz’s adaptation was a smart way to continue that live theater tradition throughout the film.
Greene, who had portrayed Audrey in the off-Broadway stage production version of Little Shop of Horrors, was the perfect choice for the film version, too, as she adds so much warmth and tenderheartedness to the otherwise gritty affair. I just could not imagine anyone else in that role. It’s a beautifully understated character that needed someone to approach it with a hint of humor and a whole lot of optimism, especially considering that throughout most of the film, Audrey is abused by her maniac boyfriend/dentist Orin Scrivello (played by the aforementioned Martin). Obviously, spousal abuse isn’t a joking matter regardless of what decade it is, but the way Oz and his writers tackle the topic and try to open viewers’ eyes to the sadness that consumes Audrey’s life is tactfully understated.
But Little Shop of Horrors isn’t about one woman’s ability to rise above her abuser, it’s about Audrey finding her own worth in a world beyond her controlling and maniacal partner, it’s about her discovering the kind of happiness with Seymour she never thought was possible given her circumstances in life. In every scene, Audrey becomes a beaming ray of sunlight to brighten up the otherwise muted and dismal palette of Skid Row, and Greene’s hopeful and tenderhearted touch is still lovely to watch after all these years. You want to root for her, and for Seymour, and that’s a big reason Oz ended up having to scrap his original plans for the ending of Little Shop of Horrors.
With the first ending, Oz decided to be faithful to the stage production of Little Shop of Horrors and had his two protagonists gobbled up by a triumphant Audrey II, who then overtook the world in grand, classic movie monster fashion. It’s something cool to revisit now (especially since a proper version of the footage was finally included in the 2012 Blu-ray release), but that’s an ending far more appropriate, and satisfying, for theatre audiences and not so much for moviegoers. Because in a movie all about hope, you can’t leave your viewers feeling hopeless.
This meant that Oz had to go back to the drawing board with Ashman to craft a finale with more of an emotional core, and the results are what we see in the final edition of the film. Even though Seymour and Audrey get the happy ending they so richly deserved, we still get a darkly comedic twist with the last shot, showing a tiny version of Audrey II blooming in the garden of our heroes’ new home—a perfect way to embrace the dark humor of Little Shop of Horrors while also celebrating these two characters and the relationship we watched blossom for 90 minutes.
Another reason why Little Shop of Horrors has always been a standout film to me is that every bit of casting (even the smaller parts that had to be recast during the ending reshoots) is simply pitch-perfect and every cameo still fills my heart with joy to this day (well, maybe not necessarily Jim Belushi, but he does a fine job just the same). Martin, who made a career out of playing lovable jerks, was an inspired choice for the nitrous-huffing dentist of doom, displaying a truly unhinged side that we had not yet seen from the actor. Bill Murray, whose character had been in Corman’s original film but had been omitted from the stage play version, plays a deranged patient of Scrivello’s, and we also get an appearance from the late, great John Candy, who plays a wacky radio host with a penchant for oddities.
At the heart of Little Shop of Horrors was Moranis, who carved out a cinematic niche for himself over the years with his ability to portray struggling, empathetic characters that everyday folks could relate to: the awkward accountant living down the hall from the woman of his dreams, the host of an aspiring Canadian talk show, an embattled parent (on more than one occasion), a boss who gets none of the respect he deserves, or someone left to wrangle a wild card mobster under the care of the Witness Protection Program.
Sure, maybe none of us have ever been Lord Dark Helmet or created a shrinking device that could transform our kids into the size of ants, but it was the way Moranis made those often larger-than-life characters feel so real and so relatable that made him such a rare talent in Hollywood, and it’s a huge reason why Little Shop of Horrors works as well as it does.
When discussing the merits of Little Shop of Horrors, I would be horribly remiss if I didn’t take a moment to pay my respects to the practical effects of the film. From all the variations of Audrey II to the oversized mouth Oz shoots from during Martin’s musical number, “Dentist!”, to all the effects created for the scrapped finale, Little Shop of Horrors was a landmark achievement in practical effects and puppetry 30 years ago, and those creations hold up to this very day.
Even though movie musicals have been around for well over 80 years now, there’s no doubt in my mind that Little Shop of Horrors still remains one of the very best we’ve ever seen grace the silver screen, and it’s easily one of the most ambitious and entertaining projects released during what was already a stellar year for movies. Oz had already proven himself as an adventurous director with his efforts on the aforementioned The Dark Crystal and The Muppets Take Manhattan, but to me, Little Shop of Horrors will always be his greatest achievement in fantastic storytelling, making it a timeless classic that’s always worth celebrating.
This retrospective is part of our Class of 1986 special features celebrating a wide range of genre films released thirty years ago. In case you missed them, we have links to our other Class of 1986 pieces, and to read more exclusive interviews and articles about flicks from ’86, click on the DEADLY Magazine cover image below: