Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Little Shop of Horrors

It's not one of my favorite movies, but I enjoy Little Shop of Horrors, the musical directed by Frank Oz and starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin. The songs are catchy, the characters are fun, the man-eating is inventively realized, and there's an underlying sweetness and charm to it.

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) is the original movie by B-Movie king Roger Corman that inspired the off-Broadway musical, which in turn inspired the Oz movie. It's a stripped down, cheap, black-and-white feature: no songs, no elaborate special effects, and the only name actors in it are Dick Miller and a then-unknown Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient (who's only in one scene and yet is featured prominently on all the modern advertising for it). Corman reportedly filmed it in two days on a budget of $27,000 (there's a reason he made hundreds of movies and never lost a dime.). It's a dark comedy, more cynical than the musical that followed, but it is modestly entertaining. I prefer the musical, but sometimes it's interesting to go back and look at the original seed of an idea before it blossomed into a beautiful flower.

Seymour (Jonathan Haze) is on the verge of being fired from the Skid Row flower shop he works at when he presents his boss, Mr. Mushnick (Mel Welles), a strange, new, Venus flytrap-like plant. The new plant, named Audrey Junior - after the co-worker (Jackie Joseph) the nerdy Seymour has a crush on - is a hit with the public, and the shop's business begins to grow. But what no else but Seymour realizes is that the plant is carnivorous; it feeds on blood at first, and it isn't long before the plant starts munching on people.

Somehow, the original version of Little Shop of Horrors manages to be sillier than the musical but not as funny. My main problem with it is Haze, who might as well have been Gilligan for all the dopey clumsiness he brings to the role, and it gets irritating after a while. Moranis' Seymour was a nerd and a wimp but still pretty lovable, but Haze, I just wanted to slap him. The rest of the cast is OK, but the scene stealer is Nicholson, obviously, as the patient who prefers drills without Novocaine, but he's only around for one scene.

The plotting is also looser here than in the musical, which is odd because this version is the shorter film. Steve Martin played the deranged dentist in the musical, and he was also Audrey's abusive, motorcycle-riding boyfriend, but here, the dentist is just a weird customer of the plant shop that Seymour visits for a toothache, and they end up fighting with drills and Seymour stabs him. Knowing what I know about Corman, I wouldn't be surprised if the only reason there's a dentist in this movie is because Corman had access to the props. Dick Miller also turns up in a role of little consequence, only around to eat the flowers he buys.

The movie is also a bit darker than I expected. The first victim fed to Audrey Jr. isn't the evil dentist but an innocent bystander that Seymour accidentally murders by knocking him into an oncoming train. Later, he also murders a prostitute to use as plant food. Maybe this is why I don't find this particular Seymour all that endearing or sympathetic. More likable is the blustery Mushnick, who is horrified by what Seymour does, but in a pinch, he feeds an armed robber to the plant.

Still, for a cheap B-movie, there's fun to be had. I've always been a fan of these type of Faustian stories, and the plant itself, while obviously not as elaborate as the 80s version, works in a hokey way. It looks like a puppet on a table top and really doesn't move much apart from opening and closing its mouth, but the film does a good job with it. If you can't enjoy the sight of a wimp stuffing dismembered body parts down the gullet of a man-eating plant, then you already know this movie isn't for you.

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