Little Shop of Horrors (1986, Frank Oz)

I begin talking about Little Shop of Horrors with a confession—I didn’t like it as a kid. I think I saw it a couple times on video, but a full decade before I was willing to give musicals a chance. Now, of course, I can appreciate the absolute glory of the film’s musical numbers, particularly in the first half. Director Oz, choreographer Pat Garrett, production designer Roy Walker, cinematographer Robert Paynter, editor John Jympson, the entire cast, they do a phenomenal job. The film opens—after a text crawl—with its Greek chorus, Tichina Arnold, Tisha Campbell, and Michelle Weeks and it’s excellent, but then the film brings it up another dozen notches with an elaborate, full-set (Pinewood Studios set so a gargantuan one) number, which also brings in protagonists Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene—it’s truly wonderful stuff.

Also when I was a kid I didn’t like movies shot on sets. They had to be shot on location, something I’d forgotten about but was—as I recall—solely so my best friend and I could dismiss things out of hand.

I was obnoxious.

Anyway. The movie’s mostly great. Around the halfway mark, it becomes a special effects spectacular, with a giant otherworldly Venus flytrap (voiced by Levi Stubbs) singing duets in real-time with Moranis. There are bigger effects sequences as the plant grows and grows, thanks to Moranis’s willingness to provide it with human blood then flesh, but nothing’s more impressive than the puppeteers keeping it all in time. It’s phenomenal work. And exactly the kind of thing I should’ve appreciated as a kid (being a Muppet fan). Maybe it was the pan and scan.

While the story is about this carnivorous plant promises Moranis fame and fortune—instead of early sixties skid row squalor, the film’s got a separate arc running simultaneously: revealing Greene can belt out a song like nobody’s business. Throughout the film, outside the musical numbers (but also in most of them), Greene does a blonde bimbo voice—she’s never a blonde bimbo caricature, mind you, she’s just got the voice and the character’s behind it. She sings a full solo in the bimbo voice, but when it comes time for her big romance number with Moranis, Little Shop reveals her full range and it propels the film. Just when the film’s going to need it the most, because the third act is mess.

It’s not a mess, just messy. There aren’t great cameos—the first two acts have John Candy, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray (with Steve Martin basically doing a giant extended cameo as Greene’s sadist boyfriend, the local dentist)—instead we get Jim Belushi. I mean… Jim Belushi? He’s fine, but… Jim Belushi? Candy’s got a funny scene as a radio show host, Murray’s a pain seeker who enrages Martin with his desire for torment, and then Jim Belushi. Little Shop manages to avoid caricature in every one of its principals—including the Greek chorus—for the last stunt cameo to be a disposable one from Belushi. It’s a very weird miss, especially since it comes after an extended break from stunt cameos so it’s not like they needed another one. They could’ve gone out with Murray and Martin’s simultaneously revolting and exhilarating scene, but instead Belushi in a throwaway.

So, messy.

Obviously, in the intervening years since release, we—the royal we, lots of people knew at the time because it’s a stage adaptation—know the film’s got an entirely different ending than originally intended and shot and there are some rough tone shifts in the third act. It doesn’t help the “Moranis gets famous” arc is too rushed (and a much better place for a stunt cameo), especially since Greene doesn’t participate in it even after they become de facto business partners.

The resolve is abrupt but decent, with Oz finding a good enough tone, seemingly aware he’s just got to get to the end credits and they can run a song medly and it’ll all be fine.

Great performances from Greene, Moranis, and Martin. Martin’s an Elvis bad boy who’s the perfect combination of vile and jackass. Moranis is the shy orphan who doesn’t realize he’s come into his own; he does well on the singing, but he’s never the actual star of the sequence, it’s Stubbs or Greene. Greene’s breathtaking. Her character arc’s not great but it’s good enough under the circumstances and, wow, can she belt. There’s one number where she’s holding this note and ostensibly Moranis is keeping up with her but it’s like… what noise was he actually making because how could he keep up.

Stubbs is awesome as the plant.

And it’s impossible imagine anyone but Arnold, Weeks, and Campbell as the Chorus, who also suffer in the third act (but at least they get to go out on a great number).

Little Shop’s a delight and a big success. Even with the messy third act, changed ending, whatever, it’s an achievement for Oz and his crew, Greene, Moranis, Martin, and company.

Hard eye roll at my nine year-old take on this one.

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