"Well, I guess there's just no accounting for people's tastes," says Jonathan Haze as eternal dweeb Seymour Krelboyne in Roger Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors, reacting to a Venus flytrap that develops an insatiable taste for human meat. And yet, Seymour could just as easily have been referring to fans of Corman's work or the cult phenomenon in general, spawning as it has generations of leftfield esoterica and underground oddities. Based on a 1932 short story by John Collier, Corman's 1960 low-budget horror comedy would soon gather just such a loyal following, one presumably more fascinated by the film's notorious shooting schedule (two whole days) and odd casting flourishes (a young actor by the name of Jack Nicholson happens to steal the film as a masochistic dental patient) than the actual quality of the finished product, which is charming in that borderline incompetent manner that cult films tend to thrive on. The Little Shop of Horrors would go on to inspire very popular off-Broadway and West End stage productions throughout the early 1980s, before being adapted for the screen in 1986 by Howard Ashman.
The resulting film, directed by Franz Oz, would prove to be the definitive retelling of Collier's off-color tale of boy-meets-girl, plant-eats-everybody insouciance. And the reason it succeeds so wonderfully—and part of the reason it continues to endure to this day, not only as a cult item, but also as a cutting-edge visual-effects production and love story—is the filmmakers' commitment to parlaying the story's inherent juvenilia into something grand, almost tragic. Oz's team would even attempt to stay loyal to the gleefully macabre ending of the stage play in which the overgrown, man-eating plant from outer space spawns sister plants and systematically destroys the entirety of New York City, all hellfire and brimstone and not a happy ending in sight. This 20-minute rampage was shot, edited, test-screened, and eventually rejected by audiences who couldn't stomach the fact that Seymour (Rick Moranis) and his ditzy bride to be, Audrey (Ellen Greene, reprising the role she popularized on stage), not only didn't live to see their nuptials come to fruition, but we're actually eaten alive by a foul-mouthed, jive-talking interstellar flytrap.
And in a story familiar to fans of B-movie lore, the footage was stored away, held from public viewing for years, released briefly on DVD without the producer's permission before being pulled from circulation entirely, but eventually restored to its original incarnation, offering audiences the opportunity to see the film in all its perverse glory. The director's cut of Little Shop of Horrors recently made its official debut in the Masterworks section of the 50th annual New York Film Festival, and for fans of what was already a beloved piece of late-'80s absurdity, this restored version—a vivid musical maelstrom that positively revels in irreverent humor—should be something of a revelation. Part sacrificial love story, part lighthearted allegory about consumer consumption and media manipulation, Little Shop of Horrors retains a unique ability to simultaneously entertain and disarm, a movie musical big in both heart and biting critique. Turns out, this little tale of a skid-row flower-shop employee unwittingly breeding a world-conquering shrub would, like its sharp-tongued, razor-toothed antagonist, be too much for its stage- and page-bound origins, needing the visual possibilities afforded by Hollywood to realize the apocalyptic grandeur of its hope-deprived finale.
As the love-struck Seymour, Moranis calls on the full gamut of nerd traits he'd all but perfect by decade's end, embodying a feeling of blind optimism that takes over when under the spell of new love. Greene, meanwhile, expertly extends her role as Audrey, Seymour's unconsciously sexual coworker, belting out her show-stopping tunes in endearingly annoying fashion. Then, of course, the supporting cast, a who's-who of '80s comedy icons: Bill Murray as a gleeful oral fetishist, Steve Martin (in one of this best roles) as a wickedly perverse dentist with an Elvis fixation, John Candy as an ambitious radio jockey, Christopher Guest as an obsessive plant connoisseur, and Paul Dooley as an entrepreneur hoping to capitalize on Seymour's discovery (Jim Belushi actually plays the salesman in the theatrical release, one of the two versions' more interesting differentiations). But, in a sense, all these personalities take a backseat to Audrey II, the gargantuan alien seed (voiced by Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops) that unleashes infectious musical paeans to his prey before devouring them. It's a shame that the extent of Audrey II's powers were mostly lost to fans until now, but the film's tangled backstory stands as a particularly prescient sign of Hollywood's continued resistance to artistic vision. Then again, there's no accounting for taste, and thankfully Audrey II and his sly grin, which provides the punchline to the theatrical version of Little Shop of Horrors, is now finally allowed to run rampant over expectations and popular discretion, as intended.
Warner Home Video's new Blu-ray of Frank Oz's Little Shop of Horrors includes both the theatrical and director's cuts of the film in newly restored 1080p transfers, and they look absolutely marvelous. Colors are deep and rich, shadows and contrast impeccably balanced, adding a modicum of depth to the picture while retaining enough of the original grain structure to satisfy those with a soft spot for '80s film stock. Surely the 20-minute original ending provided the most difficult task for the restoration team, but to their credit the picture translates seamlessly, the visual effects and color palette (previously only seen in black and white on an out-of-print DVD) coinciding with the theatrical footage with no lingering source issues. Audio, meanwhile, receives a hefty bump via a 5.1 DTS-HD master track, also for both versions of the film. Voices are crisp and robust, separations exist, and music is powerfully restored, emanating from all channels with thundering clarity. The picture and audio transfers handle both the dramatic and musical elements of the film in impressive fashion.
The extras are fairly thorough and provide the necessary context for those unfamiliar with the film's backstory. Oz provides a commentary track on the theatrical version of the film, in addition to separate tracks for the original, restored ending and the handful of deleted scenes and outtakes—many of which are quite funny. He also, in a short video piece, introduces the director's cut alongside visual-effects supervisor Richard Conway, who speaks of the work that went into the finale of the film and the disappointment he experienced upon hearing that Oz and the studio had decided to discard these sequences. A 20-minute making-of documentary produced by the studio to coincide with the release of the film, featuring interviews and backstage footage with many of the cast and crew, is also included, while two trailers and a 36-page booklet featuring production notes, bios, trivia, and photos round out the package.
The original version Frank Oz's Little Shop of Horrors, a vivid musical maelstrom that positively revels in irreverent humor, is now finally allowed to run rampant over expectations and popular discretion, as intended. [Slant]