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Flashback: on 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors-The Director’s Cut

What a history I’ve had with this morbidly, delightful work. Talk about a case of unexpected and unintentional genius. Warning—there will be spoilers throughout this piece. But really, if you don’t have any idea about the gist of this simple story of a naive young man and his talking, man-eating plant by now—just what kind of a film and theatre fan are you? The life of “The Little Shop of Horrors”(the “The” was dropped from the title for the future stage and screen versions of the original 1960 release) began way back in December of 1959. Soon to be 76 year-old Jack Nicholson was just 22 when filming began, and he was appearing in just his 3rd feature. Jack’s masochistic dental patient Wilbur Force is an absolute riot in a single scene shot almost a full decade before Nicholson hit pay dirt with the release of 1969’s iconic “Easy Rider”. I first discovered the low-budget Roger Corman production(reportedly shot for around 30,000 dollars over the course of just two days)where I think most kids my age did—on late-night weekend television in the 1970’s. It was creepy, it was kooky, it was altogether…insane. An L.A. skid row nebbish named Seymour(30ish Jonathan Haze), who works in a florist shop and creates a strange hybrid plant by crossbreeding a butterwort with a Venus Flytrap. Eventually that plant(dubbed “Audrey Jr.” in the 1960 film)talks and grows, drinks blood and grows, finally blossoming to the point of consuming entire human beings! Roger Corman didn’t have much faith in his wacky creation after its initial theatrical run. He failed to copyright it, it slipped into the public domain, and began popping up all over late-night T.V. and subsequently on varying quality videocassette and DVD versions—most touting the early career performance of “star” Jack Nicholson(in what could only be called a “cameo” in retrospect). But long before the time when people enjoyed movies at home by simply popping a circular disc into a machine—something wonderful happened. In 1982, inspired by the then cult classic film, musician Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman created a wildly popular off-Broadway musical based on the movie. It ran in the East Village for over five years and 2200 performances—and garnered nearly every award in sight. I saw it there in 1983 at the tender age of 17, and I fell in love with the show, the songs and the delightfully daffy Audrey as played by Ellen Greene(a role filled by Jackie Joseph in the 1960 movie). Audrey, of course, was the apple of the character of Seymour’s eye, leading him to moniker his carnivorous plant Audrey II(Audrey Jr. in the black-and-white film). Then something wonderful happened again. Muppet maestro Frank Oz was tabbed to direct a big-budget film version of the stage musical! It would star comedy giants, Rick Moranis as Seymour and Steve Martin as Orin Scrivello, the nitrous oxide-huffing dentist. Bill Murray would take over the masochistic dental patient reins from Jack Nicholson(now dubbed “Arthur Denton”), and Vincent Gardenia, John Candy and Christopher Guest would have prominent participation as well. And—in a highly unusual move—Ellen Greene would recreate her stage performance for the big screen. The film was a hit when it opened in December of 1986, and I highly enjoyed it when it first opened. But, something was amiss. The big finale didn’t feel quite right. In typical Hollywood fashion, the film’s producer(David Geffen), forced director Oz to soften up the ending. Test audiences apparently despised seeing all of their favorite characters knocked off by film’s end. So, in a betrayal of Act II of the off-Broadway stage musical, a brighter ending was shot in which Seymour and Audrey survive. Financially, it was a sound idea—but it was bankrupt creatively. You see, the off-Broadway version had updated the origin of the plant to being a demonic space seed. At the finale of the show, Audrey II eats both Seymour and Audrey and then some onstage singing narration informs the audience that the plant spawned and thrived—it’s offspring growing to enormous heights and taking over the world! Oz filmed all of this, giant plants and all—and then had to toss it away. But rumours and workprints of the 23-minute far darker ending persisted for over 25 years. Some of the effects and color shots were apparently unfinished, but 21st century computer technology could easily take care of that. And so, by autumn 2012, the Frank Oz Director’s Cut of “Little Shop of Horrors” was shown on the big screen at the New York Film Festival and released in all its glory on Blu-ray and DVD. And it’s glorious. 

This ending is a marked improvement over the one that saw official release back in December 1986. In it, Seymour(Rick Moranis)manages to pull Audrey(Ms. Greene)from the jaws of Audrey II. But she’s mortally wounded and will not survive. She begs Seymour to feed her to the plant after she expires, so that she can live on in it forever—and the she dies in his arms. After fulfilling her dying wish, Seymour runs to the roof of a tall building with the intention of committing suicide. But before he can jump, he’s diverted by a businessman who intends to grow a legion of Audrey II’s from the original plant’s clippings—and sell them at retail stores across the United States. Realizing the apocalyptic danger in letting Audrey II survive, Seymour hurries back down to the plant shop to destroy Audrey II—only to have the plant tear down the building around him, pluck him from the rubble, and eat him too. The marvelous, musical denouement follows as the army tries to fight back the advancing green giants as they destroy cities across America—and even overtake the Statue of Liberty! All to the strains of the wonderful number “Don’t Feed the Plants” from the original stage musical. This finale is audacious and terrific. It’s too bad audiences weren’t able to appreciate it back when the film was in wide release. But, at least we now have the disc version—my preferred copy of this suddenly near-great film. I get how off-Broadway audiences were able to see the “dead” cast members come out for a bow, therefore toning down the impact of their butchering. But there’s no popping in front of a screen for kudos at the end of a movie—and the preview audiences revolted. It’s so gratifying that Frank Oz was able to complete his original vision after all this time. You have to see it to believe it.

The “Little Shop of Horrors” musical was finally revived on Broadway for a production in 2003. I attended that version too—and I found it tourist-friendly and lacking. The space was too big, the performers were too pretty, and the intimacy of the original show was lost. Frank Oz avoided this trap by filming the 1986 movie on a huge soundstage at the famed Pinewood Studios in England. It maintains an indoor feel this way, and plays like a cultish midnight movie. And the new ending is a revelation. I’ll never be able to watch the other cut quite the same way again.   Grade:  A-                     

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2 comments on “Flashback: on 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors-The Director’s Cut

  1. I remember seeing the stage version in the East Village with my mom, sister, and grandma. I think it may have been my first trip to the East Village. I was somewhere between 10-13 years old. Coming from Long Island, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of the then of seedy neighborhood (which I later came to love and spent many nights in it’s neighborhood bars like Coney Island High). It was a perfect setting for the play. Not sure if you recall this, but at the end of the performance long soft plant tendrils fell from the ceiling to land on the audiences, hitting you in the head, hands and shoulders. It was a brilliant effect.

    • I strongly recall that seedy East Village, Sandy! And little did I know that I would end up marrying someone from that section of Manhattan and STILL be spending so much time there on a regular basis. It took you to remind me about the tendrils falling from the ceiling though. It seems vaguely familiar in your mentioning of it. You know the 2003 Broadway version of the show had the gigantic Audrey II puppet actually reaching out to the first few rows of the audience. A bigger budget and a couple of decades of technology works wonders sometimes. ML

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