Posts Tagged ‘Comedy’


Feed me, Seymour. Feed Me All Night Long.

The Entire Movie

      

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Little Shop Of Horrors (1960). Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, and Jack Nicholson. 70 minutes. **

Little Shop Of Horrors (1986). Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Howard Ashman, based on the musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, itself based on the original screenplay by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, Bill Murray. 94 minutes. ***

*

Your name is Seymour Krelboyne. You are a born nudnik working a dead-end job in the worst part of town, in an florist’s shop about to go under from lack of customers. But you believe you have the solution: a strange, sickly potted plant with an egg-shaped gourd that somewhat resembles a head. You’ve named it Audrey II, in tribute to your co-worker, a sweet airhead with a knack for mangling the English language. Surely, you tell your abusive boss Gravis Mushnick, putting this discovery on display must be a great way to attract new customers. He is dubious, to say the least. But within minutes of your big unveiling, customers start swarming in, and the future employment seems assured. The only problem is that the plant is carnivorous, malevolent, and so hungry that your gardening hobby soon acquires its own body count.

The original Little Shop Of Horrors, imbedded in its entirety above, was made on a lark, by folks who never expected it to be anything, and who were in fact daring themselves just on general principle to come up with a movie that could be shot on sets built for another movie, on a two-day filming schedule. (It actually took three weeks, if you count the two it took to write the screenplay, the three days the cast spent on rehearsal, and the final two-day frenzied production.)   It was such a surprise success, and object of cult adoration for over the years that followed, that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken used it as the basis for a hit off-Broadway musical, that inevitably brought the story back to Hollywood. 

The 1986 version, made at a budget of approximately 750 times the budget of the original — literally, on such a scale that the moviemakers could have made the original all over again on about the same amount the money the new movie spent on any particular shooting day, before breaking for lunch — is the one that most casual moviemakers know now. Close examination reveals that the new version is, songs and all,  if anything, a smaller-scaled story. But is it a more focused one?

Little Shop of Horrors (1960): Dedicated Weirdness

As often occurs with remakes, the partisans of this version regard the remake with open contempt, treating it as a bastardization of the original work of genius. They call the 1986 version overblown, obvious, and spendthrift of the original’s charms.

One can only wonder if they’ve seen the original lately.

It’s not a bad film (though the wife is – spoiler warning – about to take violent exception to that assertion). In fact, considering the conditions under which is made, it is a surprisingly good film, with clever dialogue, and some remarkably witty character bits. It certainly serves up a lot more incidental weirdness than the 1986 version, providing us in addition to the sadistic dentist and masochistic patient a number of eccentrics that don’t make it to the 1986 film at all. They include Siddie Shiva (Leola Wendorff), a perennial customer who arrives every single day to announce the death of yet another of her poor relatives; Seymour’s crazy hypochondriac mother Winifred (Myrtle Vail), whose mania includes a revolting form of down-home cooking that utilizes patent medicines as food staples; and Burson Fouch (invaluable b-movie veteran Dick Miller), an awfully nice guy who buys up flowers so he can snack on them in the store. There are also a pair of deadpan Homicide detectives, who between them offer an outrageous parody of Jack Webb’s Dragnet that could have been, and in fact eventually was under other hands, a workable premise of a full-length movie all by itself.

”How’s the wife, Frank?”

“Not bad, Joe.”

“Glad to hear it. The kids?”

“Lost one yesterday.”

Lost one, huh? How’d that happen?”

“Playing with matches.”

Well, those’re the breaks.”

“I guess so.”

This is funny stuff now. Audiences in 1960, with Jack Webb’s intonations still in recent memory, would have found it even funnier.

The constant malaprops uttered by both Audrey and Mushnick – neither of whom seem to have ever met a sentence they didn’t have serious trouble crossing intact — are another fine element. And so’s the brief visit from the masochistic dental patient (played by a young pre-stardom Jack Nicholson, who is of course given star billing on every public-domain VHS and DVD pressing of the film). Nicholson had yet to learn most of what he eventually knew about acting, and he was still a hoot and a half as a pervert experiencing heights of sexual arousal while reading a medical journal:   “The patient came to me with a large hole in his abdomen, caused by a fire poker used on him by his wife. He almost bled to death and gangrene had set in. I didn’t give him much of a chance. There were other complications. The man had cancer, tuberculosis, leprosy, and a touch of the grippe. I decided to operate.” Hee hee!

So this is all good. What’s not? Well, to be frank, Jonathan Haze as Seymour, attempting to channel Jerry Lewis and failing miserably. (It’s not funny as intended, in either film, when Seymour trips while running into the store and smashes a bunch of flowerpots while Mushnick rages at his incompetence, but the difference between the first film and the second is that when Rick Moranis gets up, he goes back to being funny, and Haze seems to leave his comic timing in the debris.) The encounter with an insistent prostitute is just plain embarrassing. The plant itself is not nearly as interesting, in that it’s not the voluble chatterbox of the remake but instead a vegetable of few words beyond the insistent, “Feed me!” The plot doesn’t manage to achieve any real comic velocity but instead comes down to a series of strange things happening, until a dull final chase scene that consists of Mushnick and the two cops chasing Seymour around a tire yard. And, finally, there’s ending: a tragic death for Seymour that consists of him deliberately climbing into the plant’s mouth and ends as a bud with his face cries, “I didn’t mean it!”  Today, it gives the impression of being what it likely: a hasty wrap-up by moviemakers who never thought their two-day production would form the basis of an ongoing franchise, and who just did whatever would get them to the title card THE END as soon as possible.

The first film is in short the product of a generous posterity. Its best moments are remembered with fondness, and its worst forgotten or forgiven.

 

Little Shop of Horrors (1986): A Stage-Bound Epic

According to producer David Geffen, the first director approached for this remake was Martin Scorcese. Think on that a bit. What he might have made of it!

It’s actually fortunate that he didn’t, as the team put together by Frank Oz, in adapting the stage hit, made about as good as movie as anyone could have made from the material.

Part of it involves what novelists call “killing your darlings,” the fine art of jettisoning those favorite bits of business that we might recall with affection but which really don’t do all that much in terms of servicing the story. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the writers of the musical, had every reason to do this, because any Off-Broadway production lives and dies by narrative economy and therefore can’t survive much in the way of incidental characters who add nothing but oddness. So farewell, alas, to Burson Fouch; we’ll miss you, but you distracted from the stuff we needed to heed. Farewell, Siddie Shiva; we enjoyed your perpetual state of mourning, but it was really only one-joke and you can serve the same purpose as an unseen presence on the other side of a phone.

Most importantly, farewell, Winifred Krelboyne: getting rid of you, and making Seymour an orphan who has lived all his life as Mushnick’s virtual slave, serves several purposes. First, it means we lose that interval when Seymour has to travel across town to get the plant, and return with it; Second, it makes him even more put-upon and therefore sympathetic than he was before; third, it increases the stakes, from Seymour losing a job that wasn’t any good anyway to losing the only home he’s ever had, and then to finding a happiness he’s never known

All of this leaves more room for the character of the sadistic dentist, who is here positioned closer to the concerns of the plot. In the original, he’s just another odd element, incidental to Seymour’s life until Seymour needs a tooth looked at. In the musical, and subsequently in this film, he’s the human Audrey’s ridiculously abusive boyfriend, a guy who really does look to the far from murderous Seymour like one of those people who (as both Seymour and the plant declare in song) might as well become plant food.

This change moves the love story closer to center stage,  increasing our empathy for everybody involved (and making way for one of the funniest Ashman / Menken songs, “Be A Dentist”). Even the appearance of Bill Murray in the masochistic-patient part once played by Jack Nicholson is rendered material; sure, it pops in out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly, but in context it serves as the unsatisfying office visit that stokes the dentist’s rage and prompts him to seize on Seymour as a patient who will react properly to the agony he inflicts.

The increased attention to the Seymour / Audrey I dynamic gave the musical something the original didn’t have: narrative momentum. The original  doesn’t so much build in tension as stagger its way through a series of incidents. The musical makes it a comic race between Seymour getting everything he’s ever wanted, and damning himself beyond redemption. (The fact that in the stage musical and in the original cut of this film, he loses the race, as both he and his girlfriend are eaten, and leave the carnivorous plant to further threaten the world, is immaterial; a disastrous test of that apocalyptic ending led to the happier resolution it enjoys now; and it would be true in either case that it’s the tension being played with.)
  
Your friendly analysts have seen the stage musical – not the original, but a subsequent revival – and must report that the movie accomplishes things it does not. It is perfectly acceptable, on stage, for a soloist to just stand in one place, and belt out the entirety of a song – that is, assuming that it’s a good song, that it advances the story and illuminates character, and that the performer can sing it. A movie musical where most of the story is conveyed via the songs must do a little bit more, and we happily report that the imaginative staging of the songs in the film give them all significant visual power. “Skid Row,” for instance, is here an epic production number detailing exactly why Seymour’s life sucks and how much he’s aware of it; it places him in a milieu where everybody feels the same way, and motivates him about a hundred times better than anything seen in the original film.

“Be A Dentist” not only tells us that Orin Scrivello is a dirtbag who deserves to die, as the play does, but here shows us (with one eye-popping within-the-mouth shot).Giving the plant the power of song as well as the power of speech (both Levi Stubbs) underlines just how Mephistophelean the deal offered by that mulch-fed maniac is, and why Seymour responds to it as he does. Hell, despite the silliness of the proceedings, this viewer always mists up, badly, during the declaration-of-love song, “Suddenly Seymour.” He honestly cannot help it.

(It helps, of course, that they’re for the most part great songs, and that the greek-chorus narrators have a presence that restores much of the strangeness the removal of so many incidental characters has taken out.)

The set is a marvel: one of the largest New York City sets ever built, taking up much of London’s Pinewood studios, it is clearly not a real place but a fine stylized approximation of one. And the plant is terrific. Just the statistics are impressive: for the various incarnations of Audrey II, fifty thousand fake leaves, eleven miles of cable, design assistance from the Atomic Energy Commission, and fifty puppeteers operating it during the finale. None of this would be even remotely enough if it didn’t actually come off as a living thing, but Audrey II does; he’s malicious, cajoling, self-satisfied, evil AND charming, all at once. If you want to be absolutely terrified, reflect that today, he would almost certainly be rendered by CGI…and imagine just how lame that would inevitably be. 

Some enthusiasts believe it a betrayal of the source material (both prior film and stage show), that Seymour and the human Audrey go on to live their happily-ever-afters, and I’m afraid that’s an argument that can’t be won. It degenerates into, “Yes, It is! No, it’s not!” I can only suggest that if the preview audiences were outraged at the original ending where Seymour and Audrey died, it must be because that by then the couple at the center of the proceedings had such genuine chemistry…and that, by itself, speaks volumes.

Neither Rick Moranis nor Ellen Greene went on to the lasting screen stardom they deserved – in Moranis’s case by choice, as he eventually took some personal time off from acting and realized over time that he didn’t miss it at all; and in Greene’s case because the couple of headlining roles she received on screen afterward didn’t achieve anywhere near the same impact. (Unlike Moranis, she’s still performing, and was prominent as an eccentric aunt in the cult TV series Pushing Daisies.) It remains the best film either one has ever been involved with.
 
There have been some vague noises about yet another remake, including from one guy who says he wants to go back to the source material and make a straight horror movie. We are not eager to see the result.

The Leaf-Cutting

1960 version, a remarkable achievement on a shoe-string, but one with dead spots that weaken its flashes of genius. 1986 version, a terrific movie musical, that manages human feeling despite the campiness of its story.

*

And now, the wife plants her own seeds.

Second Commentary by Judi B Castro

Little Shop Of Horrors (1960). Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, and Jack Nicholson. 70 minutes. *

Little Shop Of Horrors (1986). Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Howard Ashman, based on the musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, itself based on the original screenplay by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, Bill Murray. 94 minutes. ***

I was eager to see the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors.  I had heard how this cult classic was completed in a few days, on borrowed sets and less than a full shoestring of a budget.  It was a horror/sci-fi/love story supposedly filled with just the right amount of “black humor” to at least get a chuckle or two.  Supposedly.

Then I watched it.  While I can admire the accomplishment I can not tolerate the horrible anti-semitism throughout.  If was just the caricatured characters, I could shrug it off, but no!  This hatred permeates every moment of film.  The language, the mannerisms the set decorations!  They took one really bad Jewish joke and stretched it to a full hour of pain. Do only Jews populate this particular part of skid row?  I did find myself horrified, but not by the sf/horror alien plant taking over the world, that could have been fun!

Move ahead to 1986.  I’m already a fan of this musical and I can’t wait to see what the film brings out.

This film is fun.  The music is catchy, the characters are mostly likeable, and  Audrey II is amazing!   This film never slows down.  It’s a cannon ball shot towards a heavy magnet.  Even by the CG driven films that can wow me today, these effects still play well.  Audrey II’s movement and lip synch are near perfection, but I expect that from a crew run by Frank Oz(whose puppet Yoda still far excels the CG one)!

Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene are the dufus couple you can cheer for.   The chemistry seems natural and even the singing fits the character moments.  This movie had me on the lookout for both these actors for quite some time after.

Steve Martin’s leather clad, sleaze ball, sadistic dentist is so much fun especially when played off of Bill Murray’s masochistic patient.  And, while Jack Nicholson in the same basic part was one of the few bright spots of the earlier attempt, Mr. Murray’s turn just tweaks it up a notch.

Gone from this version is the yidenglish signage, the spinster jewess with the constantly dying relatives (mass murderer???) and the over eager flower muncher.  None of these are a loss felt deeply and the changes actually lighten the entire tone.

As to the SF/Horror elements.  Well they are played out here as before.  Not actually central but not secondary either.  At its heart this remake is a love story, plain and simple.  Who really needs more than that?