Sunday, October 28, 2012

Monsterthon 2012: Little Shop of Horrors: The Director's Cut (1986)

Little Shop of Horrors poster and Amazon link

It's hard not to love Little Shop of Horrors. It's plain one of my favorite movie musicals, and it captures so much of what was great about the ascent of genre cinema in the 80s; effects technology and audience tastes had advanced to a point where a musical adaptation of a Roger Corman movie about a man and his talking, man-eating plant was prime source material for a big budget holiday extravaganza.  Recently this film has been given a new Blu-Ray release featuring, for the very first time, a restored, darker alternate ending which for a long time was the stuff of legend. This so-called Director's Cut (Frank Oz was not directly involved) works very well in its own right while inviting interesting comparisons to the version seen in theaters, and whichever way you prefer it, it's a great film, vibrant, energetic, and strangely warm and human despite subject matter that's both macabre and outlandish.

(Note that spoilers abound after this point, since the entire difference between both versions of the film is in how they end.)

Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) works in a flower shop in Skid Row, under the gruff tutelage of Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia). He's got his eye on the lovely Audrey (Ellen Greene, reprising her role from the stage musical), but she's dating an abusive, sadistic dentist (Steve Martin). To try and drum up business at the store Seymour brings out a strange new plant that just happened to… materialize at a streetside vendor. The pod, which he names Audrey II, fascinates the public, but secretly, to keep it growing, he has to feed it his own blood. When it gets too big for him to feed on his own, it starts talking (with the voice of the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs), and suggests that if Seymour keeps bringing it fresh bodies to eat, it'll continue to grow and make him rich and famous. At first Seymour is reluctant to go out and commit murder, but then he realizes that Audrey's boyfriend really is a no good slimeball, and who would miss him…

The film originally previewed with an ending in keeping with the stage musical; Audrey II eats Seymour and Audrey, and then goes on to world conquest, demolishing cities as the chorus warns the audience, "Don't feed the plants!" Frank Oz had the effects people create a five million dollar Godzilla-style rampage, but test audiences hated it. He had done his job a little too well, and the crowd liked Seymour and Audrey too much to watch them die. So a happier ending was filmed, and the destruction footage became the stuff of legend- a "work print" version of the ending, in black and white, was included on a 1998 DVD release, but that was quickly pulled and became an expensive collector's item. For a while most of us assumed that was that (although it did end up on Youtube), but what ended up happening was backer David Geffen overseeing a massive restoration of the original footage, leading to this release where both versions of the ending are available.

In truth, it's hard to choose which one is better. On a certain level, the original, dark ending is what's earned- Seymour has done some bad things and deserves a nasty fate. But black comedy is a tricky beast, and requires a certain level of emotional detachment. The thing that makes Little Shop of Horrors such a good film is the strange and powerful emotional intimacy it generates. Oz deliberately eschews overly theatrical elements, but doesn't quite go for naturalism either, striking an odd balance in an intensified comic reality. We get a girl-group chorus (Tisha Campbell, Tichina Arnold, and Michelle Weeks) sashaying almost magically through the crowd, blatantly fake rear projection for Orin's musical number, and a cartoonish fantasy sequence during Audrey's "Somewhere That's Green", but the sets for Skid Row are so elaborate and well-shot that it seems like the real worst part of town, and Audrey II itself is a masterpiece of animatronic effects, moving with unnatural fluidity thanks to skillful puppeteering and some occasional undercranking.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken wrote a terrific song score for the stage, and though a couple of numbers are missing here while others are transformed, it's a satisfying adaptation; the pair even wrote an original number, the third-act showstopper "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space". The style is a deliberate throwback to the original film's 60s milieu, combining Motown and rock-and-roll with more traditional musical styles, which makes the casting of Stubbs as the voice of the man-eating plant an ingenious move. Not only is his deep bass voice intimidating, he can sing the Hell out of the material he's given, and can run from charming to despicable with ease.

The cast does a lot to anchor the film in reality- Moranis' Seymour is a believably hapless schlub, enough that we can almost forgive him his actions. Greene, reprising her stage role, is simply unique, with a strange, squeaky voice and Barbie-doll look. There's a touch of Marilyn Monroe, especially when she deadpans some of the script's funniest lines (mourning the death of Orin, she considers that she will at least save money on bandages), but there's also something that's simply Audrey and cannot be anyone else. The two have incredible chemistry, Gardenia makes a good counterbalance, and Martin is ideally cast as a rock star / dentist. They're supported by a number of established comic faces, most notably Bill Murray in an incredible cameo as a masochistic dental patient (reprising a role that Jack Nicholson had in the original film, but was left out of the stage version.)

The newly restored dark ending is every bit as spectacular as the old scraps of footage and movie magazine stills indicated- some digital touch-ups were done just to complete the effects, and the HD restoration makes the new footage fit seamlessly- and the grim stuff attains an enjoyable, Rocky Horror grandeur. It does go on a bit, simply because, having gone through so much trouble to restore the incredible kaiju footage, Geffen and co. didn't want to lose any of it. One drawback, though, is that all this spectacle does make us lose sight of the characters who are so central to the rest of it. They've already been eaten (a plan to have their faces appear in Audrey II's flower buds was nixed as too grotesque), and all that's left are hordes of nameless extras. It doesn't quite give you the closure of the stage version, and while a happy ending may be a bit of an extreme reaction, it's not shoddily done at all, nor does it feel completely unearned. Seymour's sins are many, but that doesn't necessarily mean he can't redeem himself.

Of course, the good news is, in this brave new media world, we don't have to choose. Both versions of the film now exist at retail (Blu Ray owners can get both in the new release, DVD-only folks will have to get the theatrical cut separately), and if one ending doesn't satisfy it's easy to see the other. After watching the director's cut for the first time, I cued up the theatrical ending, just because it's nice to think that Seymour and Audrey got away in one version of the story. Call me sentimental.

Either way, this is a great movie, and arguably one of the best movie musicals. It's just plain charming, capturing the wicked charm of the source material and adding its own big-screen intensity. It's amazing to think such an odd, screwy story, in a form that Hollywood was in the midst of abandoning, got the attention and resources to make for a true spectacular, and the restored Director's Cut emphasizes just how bizarre, and yet how classically Hollywood, it is. If the movies were like this all the time, theater attendance would be no problem.

Based on an original screenplay by Charles B. Griffith
Original Stage Musical Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Music by Alan Menken
Screenplay by Howard Ashman
Directed by Frank Oz

Grade: A

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