A nerdy florist (Rick Moranis) discovers an all-singing, all-dancing, all-consuming alien plant (the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs) in this 1986 horror musical.
Just as John Waters’ Hairspray went from indie film to Broadway musical to Hollywood version, Little Shop of Horrors started life as a Roger Corman flick before becoming an off-Broadway production and then a movie musical. It has a similar knack for balancing the sweet and sardonic, the camp and macabre, resembling something between The Rocky Horror Picture Show and an Alice Cooper concert.
Directed by Muppet maestro Frank Oz, the production is replete with ramshackle sets, a Supremes-style Greek chorus and quite possibly the best special effect ever put to screen, in the form of the man-eating plant Audrey II. It took 21 puppeteers (including Brian Henson) to give life, growth and personality to the creature, and the results are astounding, a complete organism that puts the “id” in Triffid.
Audrey II bears witness to domestic violence, murder and suicide, but remove the alien plant from the picture and it gets more sinister still; the story of a man who kills his beloved’s abusive boyfriend so they can be together. And yet this is the heart of the story: the plant is man, consumed by depression, love and fame, insatiable and destructive in its pursuit of those desires.
The plant is also capitalism, implanting and then feeding off our desires. Probably the best of the brilliant songs, Somewhere That’s Green reveals how Audrey I’s (Ellen Greene) own desires are shaped by home magazines (“There’s plastic on the furniture / to keep it neat and clean”). The director’s cut ending (reshot after testing as too bleak) dwarfs even Gremlins in its depiction of a society consumed by the kind of corporate greed that made Oz leave the Disney-owned Muppets.
It is a shame theatrical audiences were denied this extraordinary climax, since the film builds and grows towards it along with Audrey II. But without that payoff there is more than enough to get your teeth into, including a witty score that quotes George Gershwin’s Summertime, and hilarious performances from Steve Martin as the sadistic dentist and Bill Murray as his masochistic patient. Oz relishes the grotesquery of these scenes and stages a great shot from inside a human mouth.
Anatomical, botanical and hysterical, Little Shop of Horrors is a deeply human story about the price of success, which expertly juggles Freud and Marx, song and dance, the gleefully inventive and downright audracious.