Is Roger Corman's 1960 film The Little Shop of Horrors really a horror movie? If you have one, two, or more functioning eyeballs, you should be able to read the tagline on the poster over there: "THE FUNNIEST PICTURE THIS YEAR!" So no, it's not intended as a serious horror movie. There's a monster, and death and stuff, but the movie doesn't take itself seriously for a minute.
In fact, it's so amusing that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken turned it into a very funny musical comedy (efficiently dropping the "The" from the title) in 1982, which was later turned into another (highly entertaining) movie. Perhaps someday there will be a serious horror film based on that version, but for now, let's talk about the Corman incarnation of the story.
The film is narrated faux-noirishly by Sergeant Joe Fink, a no-nonsense cop. He tells us about a case he worked on involving Seymour Krelboin, a sad sack who works at Gravis Mushnick's flower shop on Skid Row, alongside the short-tempered Mr. Mushnick and the bubbly Audrey. Mushnick's has a few regular customers, including Mrs. Shiva, who constantly requires flowers because her relatives are dying every day, and Mr. Fouch, who loves carnations... for lunch. But for the most part, the shop is devoid of customers.
Seymour's a real screw-up, and Mushnick is ready to fire him. But Fouch and Audrey persuade him to reconsider, and to take a look at the new kind of plant Seymour's been working on. He bought the seeds from somewhere, but he's not sure where they originated. The plant is a cross between a butterworth (Is that a real flower?) and a Venus flytrap, and it's pretty unusual. He named it Audrey, Jr., a fact which delights the original Audrey. But it seems to be dying. How can Seymour save it?
That evening, Seymour goes home to his hypochondriac mother, and delivers to her the new medication she requested. (It has 98% alcohol content.) The presence of Mrs. Krelboin is the biggest difference between the original and the musical. In the musical, Seymour is an orphan, which renders him even more pathetic, but which eliminates the pretty funny character of his mom, who's convinced she has just about every disease there is.
Later, as Seymour tries to figure out how to nurse Audrey Jr. back to health, he pricks his finger on another plant, and Audrey Jr. perks up. So that's what Audrey Jrs. eat: blood! Seymour goes about pricking his other fingers so the plant can have a ten-course meal.
The next day, Mr. Mushnick is stunned to find that the plant has doubled in size. It's alarming, but it attracts the attention of two girls from the float committe of the Rose Parade, who place an order for thousands of flowers. Mushnick is so thrilled he tells Seymour that from now on, he's Seymour's father. Wow. I've heard of promotions, but this is... well, not so much ridiculous as just weird. I mean, Seymour already has a mother, and she's not married to Mushnick. Ah, but soon the boss changes his tune when the plant wilts again.
The next morning, Seymour is alone with the plant again when he hears it speak. "FEED ME!" it says, though in a voice much less deep and less funky than that of Levi Stubbs in the musical film. Seymour's already squeezed out all the blood from his fingers, and he has no idea what to do next, so he takes a walk. As he moseys along by the railroad tracks, he absent-mindedly throws a large rock... which lands right on a guy's head. The man, disoriented, stumbles right into the path of an oncoming choo-choo, and a second later he's all over the place. Seymour gathers up the body parts and puts them in a bag.
How can he dispose of the evidence? Audrey, Jr. has an idea, and it consists of two words. (Spoiler: The two words are "Feed me.") So he does, but Mr. Mushnick happens to be watching, and Mushnick freaks out. Seymour has done something horrible... on the other hand, business is booming! So Mushnick keeps the secret.
Seymour has a toothache, so he vists the dentist, Dr. Farb. Farb is a sadistic fellow who loves performing unnecessary operations on his patients' mouths (Don't they all?). When Seymour resists him, the two men end up fighting with dental tools, and Dr. Farb is killed in the struggle. Doesn't this sound like "the funniest picture this year"? A moment later, a new patient comes in, and Seymour has to pretend to be Farb. Fortunately, the patient loves, loves, loves having his mouth ravaged, and he's thrilled when he walks away missing half his teeth. The actor who plays that patient? Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jack Nicholson. He looks to be about 16 years old.
Then Seymour feeds Dr. Farb's body to Audrey Jr. He knows it's wrong, but his plant is making him more successful than he ever dreamed of. A lady named Hortense Bushtwanger(!) shows up to tell him he's going to win a major award from the Society of Silent Flower Observers of Southern California. Everything's coming up roses for the budding florist: When he lets slip to Audrey (the human) that he wants to marry her, she reveals that she wants to marry him too! Also, the plant hypnotizes Seymour into killing a prostitute to feed to it, but that doesn't so much fall into the Good News category.
But soon the jig is up: This is where Sgt. Joe Fink and his partner Frank Stoolie enter the case. When the plant blooms, images of all its victims appear in its buds. (Including the thug who attempted to rob the shop, but was persuaded by Mushnick that all the money could be found inside the plant's mouth.) Fink and Stoolie chase Seymour all over town, and although he manages to lose them, he ultimately comes to the conclusion that he has to make a great personal sacrifice to atone for what he's done.
It really is a funny movie. I promise.
Is It Scary?
The idea of a plant that eats people, and can hyptonize humans to do its bidding? Yes. This movie? No.
Lessons I Learned
- Stay far, far away from dorks with rocks
- Don't play with matches (See "My Favorite Lines" below)
- Malapropisms are always funny (The dialogue of both Mushnick and Audrey are full of them)
- Mr. Fouch, trying to persuade Mushnick that an unusual plant can boost business: "I remember one place that had a whole wall covered with poison ivy. People came from miles around to look at that wall!"
Mushnick: "And the owner got rich?"
Fouch: "No, he scratched himself to death in an insane asylum."
- Seymour's mom: "Bring me the Evening News. They're running a self-diagnosis contest. The winner gets to go to the Mayo Clinic!"
- Mushnick, witnessing the newly huge plant: "It grows -- like a cold sore from the lip!"
- Seymour's mom: "Seymour! You promised me you wouldn't get married till you bought me an iron lung!"
- Sgt. Fink: "My name is Fink. Sergeant Joe Fink. I'm a fink."
- Prostitute, to Seymour: "My name is Leonore Fly. How's the rain on the rhubarb?"
- Sgt. Fink: "How's the wife, Frank?"
Officer Stoolie: "Not bad, Joe. "
Sgt. Fink: "Glad to hear it. The kids? "
Officer Stoolie: "We lost one yesterday."
Sgt. Fink: "Lost one, huh? How'd that happen?"
Officer Stoolie: "Playing with matches."
Sgt. Fink: "Well, those're the breaks."
Officer Stoolie: "I guess so."
Comments (Warning: Spoilers for the musical version!)
• Of course, one of the most interesting things about watching this movie now is noticing the differences between it and the musical adaptation. A lot of the changes in Howard Ashman's script make sense for dramatic or comedic purposes, but I thought it was interesting that in the original film, Mushnick discovers Seymour's secret much earlier, so it's as much his secret. And here, Mushnick actually survives the whole thing, whereas in the musical, he... well, doesn't. Also, in this version we never find out the plant's origins, whereas the musical gives the plant a solo called "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space."
• I didn't address it in the synopsis, but one of the funniest scenes is when Seymour brings Audrey home for dinner with his mother, during which Mrs. Krelboin serves cough syrup and cod liver oil. The sweet, ditzy Audrey finds this odd, but happily accepts it.
• I've seen a lot of cheapo DVDs of this movie that prominently feature Jack Nicholson on the cover. I forgot to time his appearance in the film, but I'm guessing his total screen time is somewhere around four and half minutes. He's not even important to the plot... His character, Wilbur Force the masochistic dental patient, is really just there as a joke.
• The movie ends with Seymour feeding himself to the plant. But what happens next? The plant is still alive. Does Mushnick stop feeding it? That would mean an end to his business's hot streak.
• Everything I've ever read about The Little Shop of Horrors, including the Wikipedia article linked above, mentions the amazing fact that Roger Corman shot the film in two days on sets left standing from a previous movie by the same studio, but nobody ever says what the other movie was. I want to know! Where else can I see Mushnick's flower shop on the silver screen?
• The flower-munching Mr. Fouch is played by veteran character actor Dick Miller, who also appeared in Corman's The Terror, which was included in this same "horror classics" DVD set. He was often cast by Corman, and would later become a regular of Corman protege Joe Dante, appearing in both Gremlins movies, The Burbs, Innerspace, Small Soldiers, etc.
• The lady who keeps coming in to buy flowers for dead relatives is Mrs. Shiva. Sitting shiva is a traditional Jewish mourning ritual. It's a joke! About death.
Letter grade for The Little Shop of Horrors: B+
Next film in the 50-movie set: Tormented. I just hope that doesn't describe how I feel while watching it. Zing!