Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Nebbish Seymour Krelborn’s discovery of an unusual plant brings interest and custom to the dilapidated flower shop where he works and yearns after Audrey, a colleague with bad taste in boyfriends. The plant, named ‘Audrey II’ in her honour, brings Seymour good luck but at a bloody price, forcing Seymour to decide between success, the future of those he loves, and – possibly – the future of the human race.

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, songwriters who would go on to produce memorable scores for Disney classics such as Beauty and the Beast, scored a notable hit in the early 80s with their Off-Broadway musical version of Roger Corman’s B-Movie, Little Shop of Horrors. Frank Oz’s film of the musical of the film opens on Skid Row in grimy, downtown New York, where Seymour (Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene) struggle for customers in Mushkin’s flower shop, a familiar-looking trio of singers (called Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon) providing a soulful chorus to the drab goings-on.

The prospect of closure looms over the business, until Seymour is allowed to display a new plant he found during a sudden solar eclipse, bringing a sudden upswing in the shop’s fortunes. Meanwhile, Seymour and Audrey struggle with their feelings for each other, but Audrey is also involved in a physical struggle with her sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin (Steve Martin) in which she always comes out the loser. Fed on his owner’s blood, Audrey II grows and grows, developing the extraordinary voice of the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs; when Seymour no longer has the capacity to nourish the plant himself, it is pretty clear who the next victim needs to be.

Oz’s film chooses not to open out the action too much, content to restrict it to a couple of sets that would look equally at home on the stage. It’s a wise choice, a tribute to the source material (play and Corman’s 1960 original) and fitting the intimate story of Seymour and his two Audreys. The cast is also well chosen, finding a balance between recognisable film comics and talented vocalists: Moranis and Martin are passable singers but are outshone, as you would expect, by the talents of Stubbs and especially Greene, an original cast member with a distinctive voice whose softness contains bursts of surprising power. All the singing cast bring Menken and Ashman’s doo-wop and Motown-flavoured tunes to life, to particularly good effect in Suddenly Seymour and Mean Green Mother from Outer Space. And it should come as no surprise that master Muppeteer Oz makes Audrey II a convincingly mobile creature, speaking and moving with quick and fluid movements.

There are times, however, when the pacing of the film is a bit off. There is quite a gap between Suddenly Seymour and Suppertime, filled by Seymour’s murderous visit to Orin and Bill Murray’s cameo as the dentist’s simpering, pain-loving patient. Wikipedia informs me (not having seen the musical or Corman’s film) that this scene didn’t feature in the stage musical, and it shows. Although Murray is very funny, the scene disrupts the musical flow of the piece; it feels as though it belongs to another film, and contributes to a feeling that comedians are being wheeled out simply to have cameos – whilst Christopher Guest and John Candy are amusing in their small roles, Jim Belushi does nothing with his.

Furthermore, although the climax of the film is generally handled well, the actual moment of Audrey II’s destruction looks fairly cheap, most probably caused by a late change to the film’s ending, likely to dismay fans of both the musical as originally written and Corman’s movie.

Little Shop of Horrors contains much to enjoy, and with pleasing performances of decent songs does everything a musical should. Given that it’s easy to get wrong (Tommy, take a bow), Oz and his cast deserve a lot of credit; however, he does allow too much non-musical comedy into the picture, leaving the audience with a sense that two different films are fighting for space. For comedy fans, the songs are likely to get in the way. For musical purists, this will probably be a film to watch in its entirety once, with further viewings limited to listening to the favourite numbers and lamenting some of the missing ones.

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