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From the Vaults: 'The Little Shop of Horrors' (1960)

March 8, 2010 |  1:03 am

Note: Since we began in 2007,  the Daily Mirror has wanted to provide posts about historic films, but like the rest of the DM, we wanted to make it a unique, personal view. We found a fresh, original voice in Anne Elisabeth Dillon, who works around the corner from us on the National copy desk. Please welcome her -- lrh

little_shop01Roger Corman'sThe Little Shop of Horrors” (1960) is a movie I'd been avoiding since seventh grade. That's around the time I first rented a copy of the 1986 musical, starring Rick Moranis and Vincent Gardenia, and fell profoundly in love. I still know that movie backward and forward. (The dentist scene shot from inside the patient's mouth -- oh my God, that's still the apex of cinematic hilarity to me.)

My feeling about Corman's original has always been something like: well, I'm sure it's historically noteworthy, but clearly the material has since been perfected. In recent years, though, I've become two things: kind of a Roger Corman fan (“The Raven” cracked me up eight ways from Sunday); and a carnivorous-plant gardener. And both those things have made me feel guilty for not looking into this movie.

So the situation was remedied recently and oh my, I owe Corman a massive apology. His “Little Shop” could not be more fun. All the elements in the musical version are there already, just more concise and not set to song. And there are pleasingly surreal elements that could never have been replicated.

The basic story is the same: Seymour Krelborn (Jonathan Haze) is an unappreciated gardener working for Mr. Mushnik's flower shop on skid row, yearning for his beautiful colleague Audrey (a serenely demented Jackie Joseph). A nasty, weird carnivorous plant nicknamed Audrey Jr. brings unexpected success to Mushnik's shop, but poor Seymour has to keep it supplied with human flesh. (The musical renames the plant Audrey II, which I still think is funnier.) Can Seymour keep the original Audrey from learning his horrible secret?

little_shop02  Corman's film is only a bit over an hour long, and that proves to be the perfect song-free running time for this concept.

The best part is the loopy sideshow of supporting characters. One of the first to appear is Mrs. Shiva, whose relatives are always dying -- fans of the 1986 movie will recognize her name right away -- but then there's also Burson Fouche, who orders a bunch of carnations and then tells Mr. Mushnik, “I'll eat them here,” before taking a huge mouthful. And the dentist is absolutely brilliant. I love Steve Martin as much as the next girl (OK, probably more), but nothing he does in the 1986 film can touch when Dr. Farb (John Shaner) pulls a tooth and then exclaims, “Seymour! I didn't know you were an elk!” Why is there a dentist in a movie set in a flower shop? I have no idea. But it works.

Speaking of the dentist, this movie is also famous for being one of Jack Nicholson's first. Some of the repackaged DVDs promote him so heavily that for a while I assumed he played Seymour (another reason to avoid the thing -- that casting would be all wrong). But instead he's Wilbur Force, the masochistic dental patient (or, as I said out loud, startling my cats, "Oh hah, he's the Bill Murray character!"). When he walks into the office wearing his Jack grin, the visual joke almost renders the dialogue superfluous.

The 1986 film comes with a happy ending, unlike the fatalistic stage version it's based on, wherein Audrey II consumes all the main characters and closes the show poised to take over the world. Corman's milder original comes with an appropriately scaled-down ending: The person responsible for all the mayhem gets his own, but that's where it stops.

little_shop03 As for carnivorous plants, Seymour describes Audrey Jr. as “a cross between a butterwort and a Venus flytrap.”

In his marvelous book “The Savage Garden,” Peter D'Amato remarks that Roger Corman must have chosen “butterwort” because it sounded particularly disgusting. I don't know about that – what could sound sweeter than a butterwort? -- but maybe it is so.

Apparently there's a spiffy colorized version available from Legend Films, featuring a commentary by Mike Nelson of “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”; Barry Rice of the marvelous Carnivorous Plant FAQ claims to be credited on it as a “carnivorous-plant wrangler,” which is wonderful. I am now on the lookout for this.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images, from top: Seymour introduces Audrey to Audrey Jr.; the gang of flower-shop denizens includes Mrs. Shiva, Bourson, a representative of the Silent Flower Observers of Southern California, and a bemused Mr. Mushnik; Seymour feeds the plant. Courtesy The Filmgroup Inc.