Little Shop of Horrors is big enough in popular culture that I don’t have to worry about spoilers, right? In the Broadway show, the plant eats Audrey and Seymour. The 1986 movie has a happy ending where Seymour saves Audrey and kills the plant. Which is fine. When I was 10, the original ending would have destroyed me. It has become something of legend though. They not only shot the original stage ending, but an extended sequence of the Audrey II plant taking over the world. A DVD with the original footage in black and white was recalled due to rights issues, but you could find copies on eBay. I won’t say how I managed to see it, but in the interest of thorough cinematic research and Little Shop fandom, I saw this ending by any means necessary. I mean, it’s that, the Donner cut of Superman II and the Eric Stoltz footage from Back to the Future, right? The Holy Grails of cinema and now we’re two for three.
For the film’s Blu-ray release, Warner Brothers cleared up all the rights and presented the original ending in full color. You can even watch it reconstituted back into the film as a director’s cut. I’m still going to stand by the theatrical cut. The dark ending is funny but there’s nothing wrong with killing the monster and saving the day. It is a beautiful film which I’ll get to in a bit, but for the sake of thoroughness, faithfulness and an alternate 1986 reality, the director’s cut needs to exist.
It would be one thing if they just changed the last scenes to have Audrey and Seymour live, then fade to black and roll credits. Endings get changed all the time. The Little Shop film elaborated on the Broadway show as only movies can. A full seven minutes after the alternate “Somewhere That’s Green” reprise and “Mean Green Mother” numbers becomes a monster movie where Audrey IIs take over the world. There is fabulous miniature and puppet work where giant plants wrap their roots around national monuments and mess with panicking city folks and military. It works as a staggeringly awesome short film, and it’s still a rather traumatizing thought. I know how movies are made and I know talking plants aren’t real, but maybe once you’re touched by something as a kid you can never shake it. I watch this footage and admire the craftsmanship and creativity that went into it, then want to hide under the covers with the theatrical cut.
Revisiting the film itself reminded me of its genius and illuminated new details I only appreciate as a grown-up who’s watched a decade or two more films in his life. The story is a simple spoof of ‘60s B movies. Flower shop nerd Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) discovers a plant that only grows when fed blood. He’s named it Audrey II after his coworker Audrey (Ellen Greene), a dolled up damsel who dates abusive men like the dentist Orin Scrivello (Steve Martin.) Seymour feeds people to the plant and gets famous as it grows. Silly stuff, and it was based on one of Roger Corman’s worst movies. He made the original in two days on existing sets, though calling it a feature at 72 minutes is sketchy. Jack Nicholson plays a masochistic dental patient (Bill Murray in the musical movie) but other than that it feels like a throwaway project, not the inspired classic the musical became.
The quality of a musical really comes down to the songs, and the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman music is fantastic ‘60s style rock. The title song, “Downtown,” “Feed Me,” “Suddenly Seymour,” “Dentist” and “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” (written exclusively for the movie) are classics. The animatronic work is phenomenal too. Directed by Muppeteer Frank Oz, the Audrey II is an animatronic puppet the grows in size, scale and complexity. The talent of these artists is on even greater display on the Blu-ray, where you can see every detail of the moving parts and the subtleties of their expressions. I can see where good music and cool creatures were enough to captivate me as a kid, but there’s more to it than that.
We really feel for Seymour and Audrey and it’s not just because feeding people to plants is wrong. The moral issues are there and that probably seeps in, but now that I’ve studied films and actors my whole life, I see the wealth of performance on display. Moranis is great at little ticks that make Seymour a little bit of what we’d call Aspergers today, yet totally sympathetic. Greene, who originated the role on stage, is able to be theatrically big while fitting the needs of film. Her reprise of “Somewhere That’s Green” in the alternate ending is heartbreaking. But most strikingly, Martin, one of the all-time genius comedians, is doing such subtle physical work in an outrageous character, that’s why we love to hate Orin.
The Blu-ray looks phenomenal. You can see all the detail in the Pinewood Studio sets for skid row and all the detail carved into Audrey II. The colors of the plant burst off the screen in HD. The picture maintains a film quality. You may see a little grain in some scenes, but it’s crisp so you see said details way more clearly than when it’s projected on a screen. The details are particularly breathtaking in the director’s cut ending. All the destruction and debris and miniature work really are some of the greatest special effects work ever achieved, and it was cut.
Other extras may be light. The original Frank Oz director’s commentary is kept, as is his commentary on the alternate ending. A 22 minute behind the scenes feature from 1986 is cool because it shows how everyone looked in 1986 and some behind the scenes footage (Greene rehearsing without the blonde wig on! Recording the music in slow speed because the hydraulic Audrey II had to be sped up in post!). The bonus feature is the director’s cut though. This is one of the biggest finds in cinema restoration history. And not just if you’re a fan of the movie, or know about the differences from the stage show. This is a wildly different path the film could have gone down and a good year of work by artists, that was briefly revealed over a decade ago and then buried again, further adding to the mystique. Also they’ve constructed all the sound effects for the sequence. The discontinued DVD only reproduces the picture. I don’t know how much you know about sound design, but that’s a lot of work, foley, syncing, etc. All so we can see something that test audiences rejected, that we were forbidden from seeing, maybe rightfully so because it’s traumatizing, but it’s beautiful.
I’m giving the Little Shop of Horrors Director’s Cut Blu Ray a perfect score. Some may say they should have interviewed more people or gone more in depth about the music or whatever. There are some Frank Oz and visual effects supervisor Richard Conway interviews and I would have loved to see Rick Moranis today but I say the Director’s Cut is the story. Back to the Future, the gauntlet has been thrown down. Show us all of Eric Stoltz’ scenes, with dialogue, not just the one minute montage on the last Blu-ray set. And put Back to the Future The Ride in HD while you’re at it.