Reflections on Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors
As a musical, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s 1982 Little Shop of Horrors is near flawless. Infused with a spirit of anarchic, savage irony, and drawn from Roger Corman’s original 1960 film, it fires on all cylinders primarily because of its perfect score: an early-’60s blend of doo-wop, bubble-gum pop, and rock-and-roll. The original production ran for five years Off-Broadway. In the midst of that period, Frank Oz directed the 1986 cult classic film adaptation of the same name and brought along Ashman as screenwriter and, perhaps more importantly, Ellen Greene as star. Among critics, the film was a smashing success—and rightly so. Why, then, did it underwhelm at the box office and suffer through torturous cuts and reshoots that to this day leave at least three versions of the picture extant?
Providence audiences had a new chance to consider this question when the director’s cut of the film, first seen by public audiences in 2012 and now receiving its first limited theatrical release, screened at Providence Place Cinemas on October 29 and 30. Marketing Little Shop as a Halloween story is iffy; the story of the vast alien Venus flytrap who preys on a Skid Row florist’s assistant is an allegory for capitalist soul-selling, a fully American theme appropriate at any time of the year. But whatever the season, the screening provides ample opportunity to reflect on Oz’s remarkable talents as a filmmaker.
Shot entirely on the vast soundstages of London’s Pinewood Studios, with its ability to conjure a self-contained and fantastical world, Little Shop rivals the greatest films of the golden age of movie musicals. In throwing himself into the musical’s generous helpings of camp, Oz finds a visual style that is every bit as satisfying as the show’s most electrifying numbers (which is most of them). A sweetly closing bedroom door in a fantasy of suburban life transitions to the flipped page of the Better Homes and Gardens magazine that inspired the illusion; a crane shot of downtrodden citizens in the number “Skid Row (Downtown)” concludes with the dancers snapping their faces downward so that the scene ends in a sea of shadow; and in shot after shot, the Motown girl-group (Tichina Arnold, Tisha Campbell, and Michelle Weeks) that constitutes this story’s Greek chorus keeps popping up in the least expected places. Oz’s passion for puppetry is the kind of trait that could wear on a film like this one, but the versatility of execution evident in the various puppets representing the flytrap, Audrey II (Levi Stubbs), redeems what could otherwise be somewhat self-conscious quirkiness.
Ashman’s impact as a screenwriter, too, is keenly felt. His only three stage musicals were all based on existing works, and his talent for adaptation, his capacity to transcend medium, keeps the story going even when Oz loses the thread slightly in the last quarter of the film. Yes, the lag is especially evident in the restored director’s cut, which is truer to the musical and much stronger dramatically than the version released in theaters, but this version forces itself to narrow its focus only to Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene’s Seymour and Audrey. They’re wonderful—especially Greene, who originated the part Off-Broadway, singlehandedly inventing Audrey’s kewpie-doll sweetness, and proves, in the film, to be one of those rare actors who can truly be said to have been born to play a particular role. But Oz would have to pull some kind of miracle to match the thrill encapsulated in just the list of guest-stars who cannonball into the film throughout—John Candy, Jim Belushi, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, and, most significantly, Steve Martin, in what is unquestionably the greatest performance of his career. His role as a sadistic dentist is certainly the only occasion that the wildness of his stand-up persona has been effectively translated to film. He functions as a microcosm for the film insofar as the darkness of his character can never truly wash away the overwhelming charm exuded by every frame.
Except for the restored ending, that is. The intended final sequence to Little Shop, based on the stage musical’s finale, “Finale Ultimo—Don’t Feed the Plants,” is an extended depiction of the fiery end of the world as alien plants wreak havoc on cities across the globe. It’s a bravura piece of filmmaking, unafraid about wallowing in the tangibility of the human race’s demise, and the visual effects are uniformly great. But just as the original theatrical release’s ending felt false in its Tim Burton-esque portrait of an only-slightly-happy ending, so here is something lost from stage to screen. In the musical, our heroes sing “Don’t Feed the Plants” from inside the plant, having been swallowed, digested, and turned into flower pods in its ever-increasing vegetative bulk. In the film, the song is intoned by disembodied voices, and we lose our last look at the characters we’ve so quickly grown to love.
It’s telling that, despite everything, what’s stayed with audiences across the years is Moranis’s nebbishy stammering, Greene’s terrific belt, Martin’s pouting hair flip, and, of course, Levi Stubbs’s warbling as that “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space.” Little Shop’s innovation has always been visual, but its staying power is in its characters. They’ll be in our collective unconscious for 31 more years—and beyond.