April 22, 2018

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Grade: 80/100

Director: Frank Oz
Stars: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia

What it's about. Set circa-1960, the same year of its source dark comedy. Nerd Rick Moranis works at Vincent Gardenia's failing florist. He is secretly in love with co-worker Ellen Greene, the victimized girlfriend of abusive dentist Steve Martin.

Moranis' fortunes improve when he discovers a small alien plant, who proves a neighborhood sensation. Soon, the moribund florist is flourishing, and Moranis' would-be romance with Greene takes off. The downside is that the ever-growing alien plant requires a special diet of human flesh and blood.

A-list white comics of the day have cameos: Bill Murray as a masochist, John Candy as a wacky radio host, and James Belushi as a salesman. The plant from outer space is voiced by Levi Stubbs, veteran lead singer with the Four Tops. A chorus is provided by black chicks Michelle Weeks, Tichina Arnold, and Tisha Campbell; the latter two later known for their roles on the "Martin" television comedy.

How others will see it. Little Shop of Horrors received general positive reviews, and did well at the box office. It even secured two award nominations from the most prestigious American film academies: the Oscars and Golden Globes. The latter even nominated the film for Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical.

At imdb.com, the ratings are respectable though far from spectacular. They drop slowly with advancing age of the viewer, from 7.3 under 30 to 6.8 over 45. A slight gender gap emerges among older film fans, presumably because women over 45 approve of the romantic happy ending. Young men undoubtedly would rather Audrey II consume the entire cast. Certainly, it would make the film a better drinking game.

A majority of viewers enjoy the film's many comics, especially the over-the-top performances of Steve Martin and Bill Murray (their only film together). But praise is far from unanimous, probably because of the mix of genres. It's a comedy, a musical, a horror film, and a romance, in that order. Those who like horror movies seldom like musicals, those who like romances don't like horror movies, and the beat goes on. Out-and-out naysayers are in the minority, though. They complain about the "cheesy" songs, the "unromantic" violence, the "weird" characters, etc.

How I felt about it. I have always liked both the low-budget Roger Corman original and the big-budget all-star Frank Oz musical remake. No doubt, I would also enjoy the missing link between them, the off-Broadway musical. Concerning the two films, I am unsure which one is better. They are sufficiently different that they don't really compete with each other.

Steve Martin is campy as hell, and hilarious. Rick Moranis is also perfectly cast as the lead, and Levi Stubbs was an inspired choice for the plant's voice. The songs do vary in quality, with "Skid Row" and "Suddenly, Seymour" among my favorites. "Dentist!" may or may not be a good song, but I am always laughing so hard at Martin's antics that it is impossible to pay attention to the backing track.

I read now and then that the ending fails the Production Code, since Seymour should be eaten by the plant as punishment for his murders. But he actually doesn't kill anyone. Steve Martin effectively commits suicide while preparing to torture Seymour. The plant eats Vincent Gardenia alive while he points a gun at Seymour. In any event, my moral radar doesn't go off on Seymour. Sadistic Steve Martin and "Mean Green" Audrey II are the villains in the movie, and they get theirs.

From the male perspective, an unspoken complaint is that Ellen Greene is not sexy. Some would argue her character is a stereotype of a ditzy blonde, but I give it a pass as a satire.

For a comedy, the movie provides a surprising number of truths. Nobody cares about the poor. Women date abusers. You can become famous for shallow (or the wrong) reasons.

These truths are not self-evident, in fact they are lost (and incompletely realized) in the dust of the madcap film. But then again, I would rather laugh at Steve Martin than ponder the fate of the bums on skid row. As would most of us, I'm afraid.