Little Shop of Horrors

Director: Frank Oz (USA). Year of Release: 1986

Skid Row, not many years before now (though the opening titles which tell us this are vague about when “now” is. Everything is dark, there are bums lying in the gutters, poverty reigns. The one flash of colour is the three women – Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon – who wear bright blue dresses and are singing the catchy title song: “Little Shop, Little Shop of Horrors”. This is the Greek chorus which is going to linger in the background of most scenes and sing us important plot development.

Seymour is an orphan, who has been taken in by the florist Mr. Mushnik, who lets Seymour work for him all hours – even letting him take every other Sunday off as a half day. Seymour is a schmuck with very low self-esteem, as is his co-worker Audrey, a high voiced peroxide blonde with permanent boyfriend problems. She’s currently going out with a sadistic dentist who is both emotionally and physically abusive to her. This is not your average comedy musical.

Mushnik is about to shut up shop for good, when Seymour brings out a small plant that he’s been cultivating in the cellar. During the recent solar eclipse, he bought the plant from a Chinese trader in the town’s horticultural district. When Seymour puts the plant in the window, Mushnik says no-one will notice it. The next minute, Nigel Tufnell walks in and says “I just noticed that plant in your window”. It is a tribute to the comic timing of all concerned that this obvious scene is hilarious.

The plant, christened “Audrey II” by Seymour, rapidy grows in size, and starts demanding human blood. Seymour enters into a Faustian pact where, in exchange for finding suitable corpses, he is granted wealth and fame. If this all sounds a little familiar, don’t worry about it, because no-one’s going to watch Little Shop of Horrors for the originality of the plot.

So what has it got going for it? Above all, the aforementioned comic timing. The film is essentially a series of sketches, largely by Saturday Night Live alumni. Even if the jokes are of variable quality, the strength of the acting makes us also laugh at the ones which aren’t all that funny. The sketches are interspersed by musical numbers which director Frank Oz bravely allows to show at full length. Like all good musicals, this is a film which has not forgotten to add some good tunes.

Then there is the design. Frank Oz’s day job was acting and directing The Muppets, and we see the same inventiveness in the look of Audrey II, as she grows from a timid little seedling to a bloodthirsty megalomaniac. Little Shop of Horrors was released in the same year as Labyrinth, and both films showed how apparently childish Muppet silliness could also be incredibly funny in “grown-up” films.

Most important there is Levi Stubbs as the voice of Audrey II. Over a decade before Isaac Hayes surprized everybody as Chef in South Park, Stubbs shows how close the theatricality of great soul singing is to compelling acting. Audrey II switches between the superlative voice which led the Four Tops to the menacing growl of a plant which needs some blood and won’t take any shit until it gets some. Stubbs is quite brilliant at both. It’s a shame he didn’t get much more acting work.

The film inhabits a number of different eras. Tonight, that is in the 2020s, I was watching a 1980s film set in the early 1960s (a radio newsreader towards the start of the film refers to President Kennedy). And yet Seymour and Audrey belong more to the Eisenhower 1950s – a less troubled time of I Love Lucy, twin beds and men in pyjamas. Audrey’s keynote song “Somewhere That’s Green,” has her wish she can “bake like Betty Crocker and look like Donna Reed.”

In a less adventurous film, this traditional vibe and the desire of the main characters for an untroubled family life would be a display of political conservatism. But Audrey and Seymour are not looking for a comfortable future so much as a way – any way – out of crippling poverty. Audrey’s contradictory relationship with her abusive boyfriend comes from both a lack of self-worth and a feeling that something – anything – has got to be better than this.

And this is before we get to the ending. Leaving the film this evening, I couldn’t believe that I could not remember this ending, which is unlike that of most films which appear to be much more radical. I’ll try and avoid plot spoilers – though as I say, if you’re worried about plot, you’re watching the film for the wrong reason. Suffice it to say, you spend the last part of the film, particularly the final ten minutes, waiting for a cathartic happy ending which just refuses to come.

As it happens, it turns out that this evening we were watching the Director’s Cut, which didn’t contain the romantic ending that Hollywood imposed on the original release. I’ve read a review which explains in detail why in this case, Hollywood finally got it right. All I can say is that, I find this review nonsensical. Tonight’s ending makes clear the contrast between the film’s largely conservative format and a much more subversive message. This is entirely a Good Thing.

But this is not the main point. This is a hilarious film, but in a way that trying to explain the jokes would be to ruin them. Just go and see them for yourself. Shortly after it was released, I saw it with a fairly new friend, Carol. The way in which we left the cinema together, singing the songs and laughing at remembered jokes told me that Carol and I were really going to get on. It’s as serious as that. If you don’t love this film, I may just have to reconsider our friendship.

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