Friday, October 9, 2015

Little Shop of Horrors: 1960 vs. 1986 (and also, 1982)

The They Remade What?! Blogathon is an event in which the goal is to compare an original film with its remake, presented by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the host site at the link.

It's common knowledge now that Little Shop of Horrors began as a semi-obscure Roger Corman movie from the sixties, if for no other reason than it was one of the first screen appearances of Jack Nicholson. How did it inspire a hit Broadway musical and a film adaptation of that musical? Thereby hangs a tale...

The 1960 original, written by Charles B. Griffith (with uncredited help from Corman), was one part horror, one part comedy, and one part crime drama: it begins with a voice-over narrative, accompanying a very nice mural of the Skid Row neighborhood, from a Joe Friday-like detective who tells the story of the flower shop, the schlemiel protagonist, and the very unusual plant. Indeed, Corman originally wanted Shop to be a detective story. According to a 2007 LA Weekly obituary for Griffith written by Corman, they collaborated on the story idea in a coffee shop where none other than Sally Kellerman was a waitress, long before she became a movie and TV star, and Corman said she contributed ideas to the plot as well.

Corman is celebrated today not only for his unique filmography of trashy low-budget movies, but for providing so many successful filmmakers and actors a start in the industry, including Nicholson, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, and many more. Shop was one of the fastest movies Corman ever shot, taking a mere two and a half days. It actually played at Cannes, though it wasn't in competition.

One of the biggest differences in the original is the amount of Jewish humor. Mushnick, the flower shop owner and Seymour's boss, plays a much bigger role, and as played by Mel Welles, has got a Borscht Belt vibe to his character. Seymour, portrayed by Jonathan Haze, is more urbane than in his musical incarnation. He also has a nagging mother who's actually pretty funny. There's even a shop customer named "Siddie Shiva," as in "sitting Shiva," which she's always doing because her relatives keep dying - get it? She's briefly referenced in the musical version.

Audrey, played by Jackie Joseph, is slightly less of a ditz. She's basically a very honest and innocent woman-child, with no shady past. One couldn't really call her naive, like her musical version comes across as at times. There's a dentist character in the original film, but she doesn't date him.

As for the blood-drinking, man-eating plant, it's called Audrey Jr. here instead of Audrey II, and for a special effect made on a low budget in a short period of time, it's not bad. Griffith provided the voice of Audrey Jr., and while it's obviously not as limber as its '86 film incarnation, its crinkly, highly textured exterior looks menacing enough in black and white.

The musical remake began life off-off-Broadway in 1982, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics and book by the late Howard Ashman, and went on to enjoy a five-year run at the Orpheum Theater in Manhattan's East Village. (I vaguely remember seeing ads for it on TV.) It made it to Broadway in 2003. Earlier this year, in fact, there was a brief revival at the New York City Center in midtown starring Jake Gyllenhaal and original Audrey Ellen Greene.

Greene was part of the 1986 film version (after Cyndi Lauper turned down the part!), with Vincent Gardenia and Rick Moranis - the guy who walked away from Hollywood to raise his familyThe songs are terrific, and in watching the film version again for this post (thanks again, John & Sue, for the use of your Netflix account), I was reminded of how genuinely moving and well-written they are, also. 

You might remember the film as being campy, and in a way, it is, but it holds up really well, in part because the musical improves on the Corman original in a number of ways. By making the dentist character - Dr. Phoebus Farb in the '60 version, Dr. Orin Scrivello in the musical - Audrey's abusive boyfriend, it not only tightens the plot, it adds an extra layer of tension to Seymour's situation, as he ponders whether he can or should do away with him in order to feed Audrey II's insatiable appetite and maybe win Audrey's love. Also, by having Audrey II tempt Seymour with promises of fame and fortune, it assumes a greater and more active role in the story. It's a character with an agenda beyond merely being fed again and again.

Jack Nicholson's character wasn't included in the off-off-Broadway musical...

Ashman adapted the musical version of Shop for the '86 film, directed by Frank Oz. (Would you believe Martin Scorsese wanted to direct it - in 3D?) Lyle Conway designed Audrey II, with Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops doing the voice, and I defy anyone reading this to imagine it "improved" by CGI. Actually, let me spare you the effort by simply saying: you can't. Beyond the look of Audrey II, which is spectacular enough, the fact that it's real and a physical presence on the set that Moranis and Greene and the rest of the cast interacted with cannot be minimized. Audrey II is that much more threatening because it's a real creation and not a computer-generated phantasm added in after the fact, and while I'm not putting down CGI in general, I'm saying that for this movie, the lack of it makes a big difference.

All three incarnations of Shop have different endings (SPOILER ALERT if you've never seen Shop in any form). In the '60 original, Audrey Jr. hypnotizes Seymour into doing his bidding (the point where the film lost me). The cops discover that the plant has been eating people and they chase Seymour through the streets of Skid Row. He comes back to Mushnick's shop and tries to kill Audrey Jr. once and for all, but fails, and is himself eaten. I did not like the secret hypnotism power being pulled out of nowhere; it added little to the plot that wasn't already established, and besides, if Audrey Jr. could do that, why didn't it do it sooner? The humor in the original isn't terrible, but I wonder what it would've been like as a straight horror movie - one with more time spent on the screenplay.

...but was brought back for the film adaptation in the form of Bill Murray.

In the original stage version, not only does Audrey II also kill Seymour, Audrey and Mushnick, it spreads all over the country, enticing other people the same way it enticed Seymour with promises of fame and fortune. There's a final number in which the principal characters reappear as plant-creatures, begging the audience not to succumb to Audrey II and its offspring, in a number called "Don't Feed the Plants." (This should give you an idea of what it's like.) I suppose if I were to see it on stage I might be able to buy it. Not sure.

In the film adaptation, the stage ending was originally kept; in fact there's even a battle between the army and Audrey II as it slithers up the Statue of Liberty. Producer David Geffen, who also co-produced the off-Broadway version, was against this ending, but let Oz shoot it anyway. Test audiences hated it, however (it goes on far too long), and so, much to Oz's chagrin, they rewrote and re-shot a new ending in which Seymour defeats Audrey II, marries Audrey, and they live happily ever after... although we do see one final, small reincarnation of Audrey II growing in Seymour and Audrey's front yard. This is the ending I'm most familiar with, so naturally, it's the one I like best, but I'd like to sit through the entire stage version just to get a better feel for the original ending.

Believe it or not, there was even a Saturday morning animated series called Little Shop from 1991 featuring a teenage Seymour and Audrey and a rapping Audrey Jr. It lasted only one season. It was about what you'd expect.

From a post-Broadway revival of Shop, in Los Angeles

I think what can be learned from the evolution of Shop, from low-budget B-movie to theatrical sensation to multi-million-dollar hit film, is that if you're gonna remake a movie, it might not be a bad idea to forget about cashing in on a familiar name for once, and to try improving on a poorly-executed film with a good premise instead. I don't believe anyone who has seen the Corman original would say it was equal to the musical remake in any way, but because Menken & Ashman saw the spark of something greater within, it went on to enjoy new life, in multiple incarnations (did I mention the comic book versions?), and has received greater appreciation as a result. This, to me, seems like the more noteworthy and artistic path - as long as the original creator is compensated financially, of course!

Stranger Than Fiction vs. The Truman Show


  1. I have a soft spot in the old heart for "Little Shop". The movie was the hubby and mine's first official date. We also know a long married couple who got together starring in an excellent community theatre production of the show.

    I agree that the artistic path the material traveled is truly the best way to go if you are looking at a remake. A fascinating case study.

  2. Man-eating plants aside, SHOP '86 is pretty romantic. "Somewhere That's Green," for example, is a wistful, old-fashioned song of longing for a better life that gets us inside Audrey's head and adds depth to her character, and Ellen Greene sings it so well. Pretty good choice for a first-date movie!

  3. I was astounded to read Roger Corman's version was filmed in just over 2 days. TWO DAYS?! That is efficiency.

    Thanks for sharing all this research. Great post!

  4. Turns out Corman had to shoot that fast. It was the very last movie he could make before the industry-wide change regarding paying actors residuals took effect. He got it in just under the deadline.

  5. Very good article! I've seen only the 1986 musical, and enjoyed it immensely. Mind you, I even have the main song stuck in my head right now. I'm curious to see the Corman original, but it's good to know the remake made a cool story much better.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. If you love the musical, it's worth seeing the original just to see the story's humble beginnings. Just don't expect a lot.

  6. Nice article! I never saw the movie musical's original (alternate) ending, but I saw a local production of the play. I tend to agree that you could accept the "downer" ending far more easily in the stage play than in a movie. In any case, well done!

  7. Thanks. The point Frank Oz said was that on the stage, it's easier to get away with that ending because you can still bring the stars back on stage for one more number, however contrived the idea, but a movie audience is less willing to go that far with suspension of disbelief, or words to that effect. I can buy that.

  8. Two and half days!?! That's ridiculous!! I totally agree about the CGI stuff. It's cool but some of the old films that didn't have that kind of technology are just so much better.

    Thanks so much for participating!

  9. My pleasure. Kinda surprised no one's had this idea for a blogathon before!


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