Monday, September 3, 2007

Revisiting The Little Shop of Horrors

When you tell someone you like a genre, you hope they know you possess standards and understand that well over 50% of any genre is garbage. With musicals that margin may be closer to 90%. I love movie musicals, and the idea of musicals, if only because action staged to music lends itself naturally to film and editing. The Little Shop of Horrors (1986) helped cement respect for the magical exuberance of a good musical in my mind at a very young age, perhaps 5 or 6 years old. It helped that the plot was essentially horror, since even at that age I had a terminal fascination with the other genre as it both terrified and obsessed me. By the same token, I would really get into Dickens' A Christmas Carol a couple years later since although I'd never gone to church, the story of ghosts haunting an old man by bending time and space was too sweet to resist. A few years later I'd memorize the soundtrack to The Nightmare Before Christmas, another great musical of the macabre.

Little Shop was made into a musical from an old movie about 20 years before it really became en vogue and the consolidated media corporations realized they could make some easy bucks by turning their most profitable film properties into musicals (The Wedding Singer, Spamalot, Sunset Boulevard, The Lion King,) and even sometimes turn those musicals back into movies again (The Producers, Hairspray, Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard.) The 1960 Roger Corman movie from which the 1982 off-Broadway show, subsequent 1986 film, 2003 Broadway revival and subsequent franchising to high school drama departments all came still seems an incredibly unlikely source of inspiration today. Death Race 2000 would've been a far higher profile B-movie to adapt. What mattered was that the rights were cheaper, and a pair of up-and-coming songwriters named Alan Menken and Howard Ashman could see an actual drama behind the faustian-bargian black comedy.

Real emotional sincerity in the handling of camp material elevates work above and beyond mere spoofery if done well. I haven't seen Spamalot, the Monty Python Broadway musical. God willing, I never will. People no doubt die in the course of what little story there is, and as emotionless comic relief. Every song is no doubt a comic throwaway. That's Monty Python for you, but the problem exists in nearly every musical you hear of: it sounds like someone merely thought of something odd, or some old TV show or movie, and then slapped "THE MUSICAL" onto it as a joke in of itself. By the same token, the idea of taking a powerful piece of film drama like Sunset Boulevard or Sweet Smell of Success and expecting the high emotion to remain when characters are now SINGING their thoughts and feelings (in that awful Andrew Lloyd Webber hummed-word style, typically) is ridiculously difficult to take seriously.

The 1960 Little Shop film was and is funny in an irreverent style distinctly of it's time. Corman had three days to shoot before new industry rules would go into effect preventing producers from "buying out" an actor's performance in perpetuity (thanks Wikipedia,) and not because he'd taken a bet to make a film in that time, as he'd cleverly spin the story from then on. With no special effects save for that big paper mache plant mouth, they made a classic thanks to Corman's knack for hiring talented unknowns. Practically every Corman film from the late 50s to the late 70s includes at least one actor who would go on to Hollywood success, and in this case it's Jack Nicholson. His role is like almost everyone else's in the film: a silly character with a silly name who lasts for a single sketch-scene. In addition to his "Wilbur Force," a masochistic dental patient, we have "Siddie Shiva" the perpetually mourning Jewish mother ("sitting Shiva" is a Yiddish phrase for mourning,) "Joe Fink" and "Frank Stoolie" as a couple of Dragnet parody cops who also narrate the film's opening, "Phoebeus Farb" as a sadistic dentist, and "Burson Fouch" as a man who eats a movie about a man-eating plant, geddit? Micro budgeted, micro scheduled productions always call for sheer strength of acting and writing.

(colorized version, but better sound)

The humor is all Sweeny Todd meets Jewish vaudeville and Mad magazine, and it preserves wonderfully. At the time, Sweeny Todd hadn't yet gone from 19th century folklore to stage musical so the only precedent for a black comedy about murdering people to stay in business was the previous year's A Bucket of Blood - also written by Charles B. Griffith and directed by Corman. Though that odd black comedy subgenre would thrive under Corman and his disciples in the future (Paul Bartel's Eating Raoul, Herschel Gordon Lewis' The Wizard of Gore, Troma's Bloodsucking Freaks, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, et cetera) Corman definitely broke the mold before Sweeny and Bucket is an even funnier film than Little Shop in many regards. The ensemble cast isn't as eclectically amusing, so fortunately you have Dick Miller as anti-hero Walter Paisley, the awkward and creepy janitor who only wants to be accepted by the art-beatniks where he sweeps up. This film may be the birth of a character type who'd inhabit American independent film to this day: the total nerd. Unlike Jerry Lewis, who was a funny spaz always about to inherit a mansion or go to Africa or some such grand life-changing wackiness, Walter Paisley is a truly uncomfortable and put-upon loser. To get the beatniks' respect, he winds up with his own murder victims and covers them in plaster, creating popular avant-garde art sculptures. Of course, it all falls apart. Watch it here, it's in public domain. There's something in the uncompromising neurotic ugliness of the performance that immediately calls to mind the pre-transformed geek "Melvin Ferd" in The Toxic Avenger, or "Kevin" in Repo Man, or to use a shittier example, the eponymous Napoleon Dynamite.

"Seymour Krelboine," the protagonist of Little Shop, is much the same as Walter Paisley. He's a fuck-up, he wants to impress a sympathetic girl at his place of employment, and when a devil's bargain lands in his lap he can't resist.

"Roger and I talked over a bunch of ideas, including gluttony. The hero would be a salad chef in a restaurant who would wind up cooking customers and stuff like that, you know? We couldn't do that though because of the code at the time. So I said, “How about a man-eating plant?”, and Roger said, “Okay.” By that time, we were both drunk."

"I wrote Bucket as a satire, and then Little Shop as a farce. Different characters, different names and gags, but it was absolutely scene by scene the same structure. Both were around 64 pages, which was 64 minutes."

- Charles B. Griffith, Senses of Cinema interview

Unlike Bucket, Seymour never goes out of his way to kill anyone - the first dead body is accidental, the second is the sadistic dentist Farb so we're not supposed to feel too bad. Then Seymour's Eastern European / Yiddish boss Mr. Mushnik tricks a burglar into being eaten by the plant. And when the plant hypnotizes Seymour to go find a fourth victim, whom he still manages to kill accidentally, bumbler that he is. This makes a big difference in sympathy, and when Menkin & Ashman stripped down the story to it's essentials it made sense to keep the first victim accidental, as well as the cruel dentist whom they turned into the abusive (dentist) boyfriend of Audrey, Seymour's secret love. Whereas in the original she's just kind of there as a funny bimbo who takes to liking Seymour for his plant, their relationship and the triangle of doom between them and the plant was wisely moved to the center of focus. Seymour is more culpable for the deaths in the '82/'86 musical - first by his intent to murder the dentist allowing him negligent homicide, then tricking his boss into the plant's clutches when threatened with exposure.

So when the plant "Audrey II" finally devours Seymour's love Audrey, it's the denouement of the story before Seymour is devoured himself as he was in the original film. Then the final song is sung by the greek chorus and warns, "Don't feed the plants!" as the world's survival is now at stake against Audrey II. The fact the plant is from space in the '82 musical wasn't explained explicitly until the '86 film added a song about it. In the '60 film Seymour incredulously grew a plant by accident which gurgled commands to feed it human flesh. Seymour's downfall in the musical is also more explicitly linked to the need for success at the flower shop by making the plant manipulate his desperation to escape poverty, and the illusion Audrey won't love him without it. That's the farce element missing from Bucket of Blood and the impetus for any meaningful story between the characters.

Tragically, they changed the ending of the film version to a happy one. This subverts what was an otherwise perfect movie musical adaptation, at the time a unique endeavor, into one of the most cynical and cowardly examples of Hollywood committee-think ever.

Here's a quote from the Onion AV Club interview with the director, Muppets alum Frank Oz. After mentioning a watered-down committee-mandated ending to the Stepford Wives remake (no I haven't seen it) they ask this:

AVC: You talked about your instincts being darker, more subversive. In the original ending of Little Shop Of Horrors, apparently everyone dies. Were you surprised that you got away with filming it?
FO: No, David Geffen (stage and screen version producer - cinemachine) was very supportive of how Howard Ashman and I wanted to do the original ending. David said, "You can't do that, you can't kill your leads," but he supported us. Two years later, we killed our leads and the audience hated us for it. They loved those leads, because in a stage play, you kill the leads and they come out for a bow—in a movie, they don't come out for a bow, they're dead. And the audience loved those people, and they hated us for it. It got very, very, very exceedingly low scores as a result, so we had no choice but to re-shoot it. And I believed it was the right thing to do. I was unhappy that Howard and I couldn't solve how to use a million dollars worth of great B-movie shots and footage, but we had no choice.
AVC: It's an interesting project, because the original was such a tiny little thing, and then it was turned into this giant musical.
FO: But actually, it's not a giant musical.
AVC: But it feels that way, it feels like a really, really big movie, which is a testament to your direction.
FO: I disagree. If you really look at all the big movies, like Fiddler On The Roof, My Fair Lady, Sound Of Music, etc. etc., those are big musicals with huge crane moves and wide vistas and shots. And I kept it, very on-purpose, an Off-Broadway feel. It's only one street, it's all we had.
AVC: It seems a lot bigger.
FO: It was certainly "big" compared to the original stage play, but it was an Off-Broadway thing and I tried to keep it that way.
AVC: Would it be safe to say that you preferred the original ending?
FO: It's not that I preferred the ending, no. Our job is to entertain an audience, it's not just to do it for the director. You might as well sit in a white room and look at the movie for the rest of your life—it's ridiculous. I was frustrated that I couldn't use the ending, use the special effects with the ending, that's all. I'm not happy with the happy ending and I'm not happy with the original ending, because it doesn't work out, everybody is unhappy in the theater. So there's no real answer at that point.
AVC: You want the audience to love your leads, but if you succeed at that—
FO: You have to succeed, and then once you succeed, you can't kill them. No, I take that back, if you succeed and you kill them, you've got to kill them in such a way that the audience feels satisfied—that he died for a higher cause or something like that, like the guy who jumps on a grenade and saves his buddies. That's a different kind of death, [and] we didn't have that kind of death.

Very disappointing sentiments.

The "great B-movie shots and footage" to which Oz refers were the scenes that accompanied the finale tune "Don't Feed The Plants," which when performed on stage described how the plants found their way into the households of America and continued their world takeover from there. The cast members who had been eaten also re-appear as flowers with creepy human faces, flanking Audrey II - a reference to the original film.

The '86 film extrapolates on the plants' forthcoming wave of terror (sans flower-cast) by showing them RAMPAGE THROUGH NEW YORK! This was no minor thing to be cut out - it cost MILLIONS to shoot and MILLIONS MORE to RE-SHOOT the lousy happy ending which adds insult to injury by adding in Jim "The Belush" Belushi to ask Audrey and Seymour to stop singing. And the original ending looks fantastic, a tour-de-force of 1980s puppetry and miniatures. It was also a shame to lose the song itself, which is after all the moral of the story - to use a trite phrase.

Oz's talk about "the audience" hating this ending and wanting to see the characters live refers to the test audiences for which the studio screened the rough cut without completed editing and music tracks. Was a group of paid "average joe" opinion-givers in 1986 indicative of the rest of America? Who cares? If the plant hadn't at least eaten Seymour in the original, there wouldn't even be an original 1960 film to base the musical upon.

Oz is covering up for his and the producer's cowardice by using tautological language like "our job is to entertain an audience" and "you've got to kill (the leads) in a way that the audience feels satisfied"...Did he not read the damn script before he started shooting? Of course he did, it was only when a panel of street jerks was consulted that they were afraid of losing money. And that's an absurd notion to begin with. I've heard people say a lot of stupid things about movies, but honestly have never heard "That movie has an unhappy ending? Forget it!" among them. Especially in the case of a musical.

There's the rub, that stage musical / movie dichotomy. When an actor dies a big dramatic death on stage, you can respond with thunderous applause. That would be weird during a movie screening. Oz has stated elsewhere (I think on the '86 DVD commentary) that a stage audience accepts death easier since all the actors will be back for a curtain call, and perhaps he's right, but it simply doesn't matter. A happy ending betrays the entire nature of the cautionary tale. Like changing the endings of Grimm's fairy tales to "protect" children, it simply stunts the minds of children and adults to shield them from the wisdom that comes from trauma. Ficticious trauma, at that. Allowing Seymour to get away with murder doesn't feel like a happy ending once you know of the original, it's simply a false compromise to let him have his cake and eat it too. More disturbing is that Audrey, who now survives her attack by Audrey II, gives him a pass for murdering her boyfriend and employer. I don't think her character would. It's a contrivance.

The good news to come from all this, and the inspiration for all this revisitation, is that the workprint of the original ending found it's way to YouTube. Originally included on the DVD release, the discs were recalled by Dave Geffen on the charge that he plans to finish and re-release the film with the ending intact - Hrrm. Well. Unlikely, but at least he feels guilty.

Here it is in three parts - the first clip covers Audrey's death ("Somewhere That's Green" reprise), the second Seymour's confrontation with Audrey II ("Mean Green Mother") and his death, and then the monster movie sequence of "Don't Feed The Plants."

So I must admit something. Had the original ending remained, and had I seen it as a young child, I might have been very upset. Cried, even. I might've hated it, as the audiences of America might have hated it. But I would've been the better for it, because over time, I have learned to accept an unhappy ending and even find a good "unhappy" ending more uplifting and exhilarating than the triteness of a tidy wrap-up. The main reason I would've been upset as a kid was because I'd already been coddled by this censorial impulse to make sure children and adults are unconfronted by the fact that things do not always work out. Also, the over-the-top nature of giant plants rampaging through the city kind of takes the edge off the more personal character deaths that just followed, reminding you it's only a movie...only a movie...only a movie...

Seeing the original ending today, with all it's workprint flaws - demo music, overlong editing, et all - it's a tragedy it was never finished. If Geffen wants to shell out the change to find usable color prints of those reels, tighten the cuts down and re-record the music, he could do a lot worse. As I mentioned, the 2003 Broadway revival has led to a franchising of the play to high school drama departments, and thankfully they have kept the original ending. Teenagers love an unhappy ending, are you kidding? They'd pay through the nose to see the movie version in theaters again, the story restored to its original glory.

For reference, here's the 2003 Broadway death scene...

And here's a clip from one of the many many high school musical versions! Adorable! There are a million YouTube clips of these lil' kids singin' their gosh-darn hearts out about murder, sadistic dentistry, flesh eating, and huffing Nitrous Oxide. Little Shop lives.


It pains me to say, but when the identity-politics assholes have a point, they have a point. It's more than a little embarassing to hear those mostly white high schoolers doing their best black dialects for the voice of the plant. The culpability lies either in Menkin & Ashman or the producers of the play. In the 1960 film, Charles B. Griffith voiced his creation in your basic Boris Karloff impersonation.

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