Little Shop of Horrors is a film adaptation of an Off-Broadway musical adaptation of a grade “B” horror-comedy film from 1960 about a man-eating plant. It was directed by a person best known at the time for playing Miss Piggy, Yoda, and Bert of Bert & Ernie. If this all sounds like a mess, it serves as a reminder of how strange and unlikely the whole enterprise of this film was upon its release. Perhaps it’s time for full disclosure. I cannot stand most musicals, but I love this film and I have loved it since I first saw it in the theater at the age of nine in the fall of 1986. There’s just something wonderful about the chemistry of the lead cast, the incredible selection of supporting actors, and the choice of director that conjures a rewarding viewing experience with few equals in mainstream film of the last few decades.
With strong leads complemented by Second City and Saturday Night Live alumni in cameos and walk-ons, this groups of players could be considered an all-star cast. As Seymour, the flower shop clerk who discovers a strange new plant species, Rick Moranis turns in the best performance of his career, elevating the kind of dweeby character for which he almost become typecast into a complicated and appealing underdog. Ellen Greene revisits the role of Audrey, which she pioneered in the original Off-Broadway production, and establishes a one of a kind leading lady and love interest. Audrey’s meek and insecure speaking voice falls away as she begins to sing and Greene’s powerful and passionate voice express everything the character is holding back and bottling up. Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops, provides the voice of Audrey II, and in doing so contributes a key ingredient in creating one of the most memorable movie monsters of the 1980’s. Stubbs’ voice, when speaking as well as singing, spans an impressive dynamic range giving Audrey II an intensity, dimension, and unpredictability that generates an unavoidable and irresistible screen presence. Vincent Gardenia’s layered, lived-in weariness brings humanity and depth to the role of shop owner Mr. Mushnik that could seem two-dimensional in the hands of a lesser actor. Sporting a leather jacket and a black wig, Steve Martin hands in one of his goofiest, most out-of-character, and most disturbing performances as Orin Scrivello, the sadistic, motorcycle-riding dentist and abusive boyfriend of Audrey.
In terms of supporting characters, one of the most important elements of this film comes not from one character, but from three. Acting as a kind of Greek chorus that breaks the “fourth wall” and addresses the audience, Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon (whose names all derive from 1960’s girl groups) set the scene with style while presiding over the action decked out in beautiful, era appropriate costumes. In these roles, Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell supply the film’s smart, energetic pacing.
The cameos and walk-ons I mentioned earlier add to the film’s irreverent, clever tone by giving these comic talents opportunities to have fun with the story’s setting. With Christopher Guest as the enthusiastic, vapid first customer to see Audrey II, John Candy as the hokey morning radio DJ who brings Seymour and Audrey II onto his show, and James Belushi as the pushy franchise salesman eager to sell little Audrey II plants across the country, these characters round out the film’s world. Watching seasoned comedy veterans turn in these performances, you get the feeling that each of them is sending up the kinds of adults they grew up around in the early in 1960’s. Bill Murray’s inspired performance as the masochistic dental patient stands apart from these other bit parts and nearly threatens to steal the show, but ultimately builds on the film’s delightfully twisted spirit.
This was Frank Oz’s third directing job and his first apart from Jim Henson and the Muppets. Little Shop of Horrors makes extensive use of puppets but no one would mistake Audrey II, the audacious carnivorous plant from the far reaches of space, for a resident of Sesame Street. Oz’s background in theater and film production with the Muppets serves him well as he fabricates the fantastic, terrifying, and multi-faceted world in which these characters live, struggle, sing, and face death.
Admittedly, this film balances many distinct pieces and any one of them could have easily tipped the whole project toward disaster. Little Shop of Horrors’ disparate elements combine to make a final product that works far better than many other musical theater adaptations of the last thirty years. Like all of the best examples of Off-Broadway cult phenomena, Little Shop of Horrors creates an exciting, fun, and perverse viewing experience that speaks to the outsider in all of us.
- John Parsell