On the 19th day of the month of December, in a not so early year of a decade not too long before our own, Frank Oz’ Little Shop of Horrors was released in cinemas. In the 35 years since its release, the film – not unlike its bloodthirsty, extraterrestrial star plant – has grown and grown, with audiences the world over cultivating a cult classic. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert even predicted in his review back in ‘86 that the monster movie musical could easily become the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, “one of those movies that fans want to include in their lives.” So what exactly is it about this strange and unusual story that has made it a firm favourite of myself and many, many others?

This piece originally appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #8 – Available in print here

Little Shop of Horrors’ story starts with a 1960 B-Movie sharing the same name, made by low-budget auteur Roger Corman. Legend has it the film – which was shot in two days on a $27,000 budget – was made on a bet, with Corman simply seeking to prove he could pull something together so fast. More realistically, shrewd craftsman Corman wanted to make the most of a couple extra days with his Bucket of Blood set and shoot one last feature before industry rules would change, meaning actors’ performances could no longer be bought out in perpetuity – effectively ending Corman’s low-cost moviemaking business model.

Corman’s film, as you may imagine, is a lot less complex narratively than what would follow both on-stage and on the big screen, but the basics were there. You had Seymour, the clumsy florist’s assistant. You had Audrey, his co-worker and love interest. You had the sadistic dentist, and you had the mensch flower shop owner Mushnik. You also had Audrey Jr., the carnivorous plant whose bloodlust sets Seymour down a dark and treacherous path that threatens his future with Audrey.

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With its eye-catching practical effects and bizarre plot, Corman’s film captured the attention of a teenage Howard Ashman. Years later, desperate to make a fun show to fight off the malaise incurred by lukewarm responses when his show God Bless You Mr. Rosewater transferred to the Entermedia Theater, Ashman remembered having unwittingly ripped off the film for a musical he’d written called The Candy Shop, and set to work with writing partner Alan Menken on taking the patchily plotted B-movie and turning it into a fully-fledged musical adaptation.

Introducing an S&M relationship between Audrey and the original film’s incidentally featured sadistic dentist, turning Seymour’s murders into deliberate rather than accidental acts, and fully committing to a tragic lovers’ arc between Seymour and Audrey – complete with a dark finale in which the lovers die and Audrey IIs take over the world – Ashman and Menken took Corman’s hastily slapped together oddity and made it uniquely their own.

Aside from the basic narrative building blocks of Corman’s film, the most important thing the duo got from his film was an era setting to decide their musical style. With a Black trio of 60s inspired muses serving as narrators (Ronnette, Chiffon, and Crystal’s names nod to the decade’s biggest girl groups), and era-evocative Rock’n’Roll, R&B, and Doo-Wop grooves adding layers to the show’s sound, Ashman and Menken’s monster musical firmly aligns itself with the sound of the 60s.

With rave reviews heralding Little Shop ‘a fiendish musical creature feature’, and the show proving a critical smash to boot, the Off-Off Broadway production soon became an Off-Broadway and West End hit. Before long, David Geffen – one of the show’s original producers – set his sights on a big-budget film adaptation. Eventually securing puppeteer extraordinaire and newly-minted director Frank Oz to helm the $25 million project, alongside a star-studded cast including Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Steve Martin, and Levi Stubbs (not to mention a mind-boggling array of guest stars), on the 007 soundstage at Pinewood studios between the autumn of 1985 and summer of 1986, Little Shop of Horrors came to life.

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Oz’ Little Shop of Horrors is a triumph of creativity and invention, a masterwork of musicality and iconographic idiosyncrasy. Buoyed by the most humble yet heroic leading man in film both on and off screen, Rick Moranis, and elevated to the realms of the divine by an ensemble including an extraordinary Ellen Greene, a brilliantly sadistic Steve Martin, an improvisationally exceptional and masochistic Bill Murray, as well as the dearly departed John Candy, the velvet baritone Levi Stubbs, and the all-round mensch of mensches Vincent Gardenia – not to mention the triple threat who make up the mo-town muses, Michelle Weeks, Tichina Arnold, and Tisha Campbell – Little Shop represents a piece of cinema where the exact right cast and crew found themselves in the right place at the right time with the right story to make history.

From Roy Walker’s grungy, grimy Downtown Skid Row studio set, to the sheer craftsmanship on display in the puppeteering and development of Audrey II by Lyle Conway and his dozens of collaborators, Oz’ film – directed with a keen eye and maverick vision – oozes with style that is backed all the way with substance. If the film’s technical and performance prowess – or the plot’s loving tributes to B-movie greats – aren’t enough to convince you, the film also just so happens to hold at its heart a tenderly crafted love story for the ages and a prescient cautionary tale about the perils of corporate greed, consumerism, and killing people for a sentient plant instead of simply saying how you feel.

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And all of this we find ourselves swept up in and flying through thanks to one of the great songbooks in musical history, a compositional masterclass whose lyrics dance the lines between profundity and parody, darkness and light, with enduring mesmerism. The Meek Shall Inherit is one of the most ambitious numbers in Ashman and Menken’s storied oeuvre, whilst Suddenly Seymour and Somewhere That’s Green are respectively amongst the most romantic and wrenching ‘I Want’ songs ever written. That’s to say nothing of the Oscar-nominated Mean Green Mother, an expletive-filled barnstormer that sees the awe-inspiring Audrey II at the peak of its perfectly puppeteered tendrilous powers.

Whether you watch the Director’s Cut (the definitive cut, with Richard Conway’s astonishing tabletop animated destruction on full display) or the theatrical cut with its sweetness and light ending, tinged with menace, Little Shop’s power comes from the way it seems to all intents and purposes to be some niche oddity made for the enjoyment of only a select few, and yet in reality its enduring themes and tremendous craftsmanship give us all something to appreciate, enjoy, and be delighted by.

If you like musicals, this is for you.
If you like romance, this is for you.
If you like comedy, this is for you.
If you like horror, this is for you.
If you like suspense, this is for you.
If you like sci-fi, this is for you.
If you like slashers, this is for you.
If you like classics, this is for you.
If you like B-Movies, this is for you.
If you like films, this is for you.

Happy 35th Anniversary Little Shop of Horrors.

This piece originally appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #8 – Available in print here

By Jordan King

Watches films. Writes about films. Watches more, writes more. And on and on it goes, perfectly balanced as all things should be. Hottest Take: Revenge of the Sith is the best Star Wars.

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