The original ending of Frank Oz’s 1986 adaptation of the off-Broadway smash Little Shop Of Horrors—in which an army of giant blood-drinking plants from outer space destroy humanity in a film-ending orgy of mindless destruction—is so well known to even casual fans of the cult musical that it hasn’t qualified as a spoiler for ages, though for decades it was unclear whether the director’s cut would ever be available in legal form. In 1998, a DVD of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s musical adaptation/parody of Roger Corman’s famously cheap and quickly filmed 1960 dark comedy was released using incomplete footage of the film’s 20-minute alternate ending, only to be recalled within days and replaced by a DVD featuring none of the intended finale. Now the original vision of Frank Oz, screenwriter/lyricist Ashman (who died in 1991), and songwriter Menken has finally made it onto home video via a Director’s Cut Blu-ray edition that restores the ending that test-screening audiences found too unbearably grim to be commercially palatable.
Even without a film-ending apocalypse, Little Shop Of Horrors is still incredibly dark for a big-budget, family-friendly musical released during the holiday season. Behind the film’s candy-coated shell lies a bracing bite of pure arsenic. The original ending perfectly suited the film and especially the stage musical’s pitch-black, darkly funny vision of a world so cruel and devoid of humanity that it might be beyond saving. In Little Shop Of Horrors’ Darwinian universe, the self-styled “mean green mother from outer space” that serves as the villain is simply the heartless predator most likely to survive.
A perfectly cast Rick Moranis stars as a good-natured schlemiel just barely hanging on to his sad-sack existence as the bullied employee and surrogate son of a cantankerous plant-store proprietor (Vincent Gardenia) doing terrible business on Skid Row. Moranis nurses a crush on an abused sexpot co-worker with a perpetual shiner and helium warble (Ellen Greene, reprising her role from the stage musical), and treats a series of exotic plants with equal devotion until he discovers a talking, singing plant (voiced by Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops) with an insatiable lust for human blood. He dubs the parasitic seedling “Audrey II” in homage to Greene’s character, who is Audrey I.
The fantastical plant promises to be Moranis’ ticket out of the poorhouse, but at what cost? At first, the plant seems content to feed from Moranis’ own trembling veins, but it isn’t long until the demanding flora wants more blood than Moranis can offer without killing himself in the process. That’s when the bodies begin piling up.
In interviews, Oz has said that the original ending was a casualty of the audience’s affection for its leads: Fans cared too deeply about the grubby little dreamers played by Moranis and Greene to allow them to end up as human appetizers before Audrey II and its progeny devour the globe. There are times throughout Little Shop Of Horrors when the audience is liable to care more about the main characters than the filmmakers do. The film alternates between extremes of dark and light, naughty and nice, sadism and sentimentality, even before the controversial original ending. The physical abuse Greene receives at the hands of her psychotic dentist boyfriend (Steve Martin) is initially played for bad-taste laughs, as is Martin’s sadism and addiction to nitrous oxide, but the filmmakers didn’t seem to realize how much genuine emotion had slipped into their sneering, snotty, irresistibly catchy B-movie spoof.
When Greene sings of an impossibly idyllic future for her and Moranis where she’ll “cook like Betty Crocker” and “look like Donna Reed,” it’s a simultaneously scathing and affectionate satire of Eisenhower-era conformity and the soothing banality of the consumerist American dream. At the same time, it’s also unexpectedly poignant, thanks to the squirmy, sad-eyed vulnerability Greene brings to the role and the heartrending catch in her voice while she croons of luxuries doomed to forever remain outside her grasp. If Little Shop Of Horrors had bowed to the dictates of taste and played down the sadomasochism of Greene and Martin’s relationship, it would have neutered a brilliantly uncompromising performance by Martin, who plays the most sadistic tooth-mangler this side of Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, a scary-funny greaser cross between Elvis Presley’s evil brother and Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. Bill Murray matches and even tops Martin’s performance with a hilarious, improvised cameo as Martin’s worst nightmare: A patient so lustily masochistic he welcomes any amount of pain, a freak who takes the worst Martin can offer and begs for more.
It’s clear the film delights in artificiality; it works as a decidedly meta riff on musicals, science fiction, and low-budget B-movies, offering a Hollywood take on Skid Row (although the film itself was filmed at England’s Pinewood Studios), where the seediest of mean streets look unmistakably like film sets, and rear projection and models are used in brazenly stylized ways. Little Shop Of Horrors’ love affair with the cheesiness of old-school filmmaking climaxes with a glorious restored ending that cycles through a veritable encyclopedia of lovingly realized horror and science-fiction tropes culled from a broad cross-section of B-movie schlock from the ’50s and ’60s. The voracious, maniacally cackling plants go full Godzilla and lay waste to cities and monuments across the globe. The director’s cut takes the film’s cynical view of humanity and smartass dark comedy to its nihilistic extreme by flamboyantly destroying a world its creators made the mistake of populating with lovable, beautifully played leads worth saving—even if that meant scrapping a brilliantly executed original ending and giving in to the unexpected sincerity and heart behind all the morbid humor and meta-textual tomfoolery.
Key features: The long, complicated history of the film and its different versions is chronicled in a behind-the-scenes documentary. There’s also a commentary from Oz on the theatrical cut of the film and the 20-minute alternate ending, in addition to outtakes and deleted scenes.