There might not be a more highly-regarded composer and songwriter in modern Hollywood than Alan Menken. For many people my age, his songs in Disney films were the soundtrack to our childhoods, and the late-80’s revival of Disney’s fortunes owes a lot of its success to Menken’s songwriting.
Of course, he didn’t do this alone, for the early period of his career he worked with lyricist Howard Ashman, and the duos second project together was the off-off-Broadway production from which this film takes its name: Little Shop of Horrors.
A musical adaptation of the 1960 film of the same name, the show was such a success that it caught the attention of puppet-master, and the man behind Yoda, Frank Oz, who took the show, and put it back on the big-screen for this adaptation.
This turned out to be the best possible choice to direct, as Oz’s experience with puppets lent itself excellently to the creation of Audrey II, the on-screen man-eating plant, in doing so creating an iconic screen villain, still as impressive in its practical implantation as it ever was.
The film is a loving spoof of many things, chief among them B-movies, especially creature features; but it achieves that most rare thing of not only being a successful parody, but also a successful adaptation of what it is parodying. It works as both a B-movie creature feature, and a parody of the very same, it all depends on how the viewer interprets it in their own mind.
For the record, the version I watched for this review was the Director’s Cut, which I believe to be the most faithful adaptation of the source material, and the intended original experience, that doesn’t mean the theatrical cut isn’t good, just that this particular ending makes more sense with the rest of the film.
Menken and Ashman’s knack for a catchy tune can definitely be heard here, you can really hear the genesis of their later style in their Disney work, based around the kind of tunes that stick in your head, and lyrics that are perfect complements to the tune, by being memorable, and at times emotional.
It seems that their two main strengths are sweeping ballads (songs such as ‘Suddenly Seymour’ or ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ here, and later examples including ‘A Whole New World’ to just name a few) and triumphant upbeat tunes, like the titular song here or ‘Be Our Guest’. They’re also very skilled in conveying character through song, just look at the song ‘Dentist’ for a rather on-the-nose example; but all of these combined skills come together to make a memorable score, for nothing can kill a musical like an underwhelming score.
The most perfect marriage that this film finds is one I’ve already mentioned, it’s that of the film and its director, Frank Oz, who pools all his resources from his years of puppeteering experiences (as well as a few friends to help puppeteer) in bringing Audrey II to life.
this was the first time in many years that I’d watched this film, and I was astounded at how well Audrey II still works to modern eyes. It falls just on that side of practicality that doesn’t seem to age, some puppet use can age a film very badly in hindsight, but used well, it’s a timeless look and by using a practical puppet that can seemingly react to the actors around it, it helps foster a much more intimidating atmosphere around the creature, making itself frighteningly feasible by just being present, rather than if it were a special effect.
It’s put to even better use in the films finale (just to reiterate, that’s the Director’s Cut finale) when multiple plants seemingly wreak havoc around the world, again it’s all a tremendous example of practical effects in film-making, made to look lifelike and intimidating, while still retaining that comical cartoonish energy of seeing a killer plant take over the world.
The film is well-aware of its camp appeal, leaning into its future status as a ‘cult film’ with great gusto, its use of a Greek chorus in costumes that wildly differ from their surroundings is one such way that the film uses its appeal to stand out (as if the giant plant puppet weren’t enough).
The films parody energy is best felt amongst its supporting cast, a revolving door of weird characters surrounding the main characters, who seem so much more like archetypes because of it. This is most egregious when it comes to Audrey (the female lead, not the plant) whose nasally voice wears out its welcome pretty fast.
To balance that out though is a very likeable turn from the endlessly lovable Rick Moranis, who retains his title as Hollywood’s favourite nerd, as well as a delightfully sadistic Steve Martin playing a gleefully cruel dentist, and a one-scene show-stealer from one Bill Murray. All of the wackier characters are brought into sharper focus alongside the more straight-laced Seymour character, almost like he’s playing the ‘straight man’ for the rest of the world, and it works because Moranis radiates this energy of likeability, the same charm that made his character in Ghostbusters more palatable, he has an every-man earnestness that really works for this character, and his image as a whole.
As I say, I hadn’t seen this film in quite some time prior to a re-watch, and hadn’t seen the extended version at all, so it was quite refreshing to see a film that could be so dark, yet so much fun. Its soundtrack is packed with winners, which shouldn’t be a surprise given who wrote it, and the characters and settings all come together to produce a film that actively seems to laugh at its own subject matter, but does it with such gusto and vigour that it becomes endearing. It gives us a man-eating plant with the voice of The Four Tops, and we beg for more. A wonderful slice of campy B-movie cult cinema, that I think deserves more plaudits than it gets.
It’s definitely silly, but it’s also definitely a lot of fun.