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Little Shop Of Horrors demonstrates the fine art of setting the scene

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“Director’s Cut” has become such a devalued term since the advent of DVD that I now reflexively cringe pretty much every time I see it, assuming that it’s just a cheap marketing ploy. There are legitimate cases, however, and Little Shop Of Horrors, the 1986 movie adaptation of the 1982 off-Broadway musical adaptation of the 1960 Roger Corman black comedy (got that?), is definitely one of them. For years, the only way to see the film’s original, decidedly unhappy ending was to get a hold of a rare, recalled DVD—or, more recently, watch it on YouTube—and even that meant watching a cruddy black-and-white workprint version that only vaguely approximated the experience of the test audiences who shot it down. So I’m as thrilled as anybody else that the film is being released this week with that ending restored in full color, even though it probably renders worthless my own prized copy of the recalled DVD, for which I paid $100 a dozen years ago. (Those were flush times, weren’t they?)


At the same time, though, it would be a shame if all the attention lavished on the restored ending distracted people from the magnificence of the movie as a whole. Every few years, the Hollywood musical allegedly stages some sort of comeback, but with the exception of Disney animation in the late ’80s and early ’90s (mostly involving the same songwriting team as Little Shop), this remains the last truly great example of the genre, at least in its classical form. (I don’t want to get into a debate with the Moulin Rouge! fanatics.) My initial instinct for this column was to look at a crowd-pleasing number like “Dentist!” (with Steve Martin) or “Feed Me (Git It),” which features astonishing manipulation of the giant Audrey II puppet. After taking another look, however, I think Frank Oz’s masterful fusion of stage and screen techniques reaches an early zenith in the scene-setter “Skid Row (Downtown),” which kicks off with the three girl-group urchins—played by Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell—being brusquely shooed away from the flower shop.


Oz immediately pulls off a nifty effect that could only truly work in a movie, making it appear as if Weeks somehow reappears onscreen in a completely new costume and hairdo only about 25 seconds after leaving frame, all in a single unbroken shot. It’s a simple trick—he establishes Weeks as the furthermost of the three singers (from Vincent Gardinia’s perspective) in multiple shots, then replaces her with a lookalike actress and quickly cuts off everything but her arm and shoulder at frame left—but he sells it beautifully by not having her reappear too quickly, allowing just enough time for us to think, “Wait a minute…” Plus, we’re distracted by the exquisite timing of the pigeons taking flight just as the camera stops tracking right-to-left and starts dollying down the mouth of the alleyway—a brief movement that only exists so it can then pull back to reveal Weeks, which isn’t strictly necessary, because she’s been in costume the whole time and could simply have stepped into frame on cue. The pull-back-to-reveal subtly suggests the quick-change hypothesis; it’s a purely cinematic variation on a theatrical conceit. Very canny.

And that’s just the prelude to the actual number. Oz began his career as Jim Henson’s right-hand man and has spent the last quarter-century making patchy, visually undistinguished comedies (What About Bob?, In & Out, Bowfinger), but in another era he might well have devoted himself largely to musicals. His forte is choreographing a seamless flow of movement—which is to say, the illusion of continuity—within a blatantly artificial context, which is the visual equivalent of what the musical form strives to accomplish: genuine emotion from fantastic behavior. I don’t want to oversell the guy, because he’s not Vincente Minnelli. But look at how deftly, for example, Rick Moranis is introduced here: first from behind the window of the flower shop (with a slight zoom down to refocus after the lettering of the sign has been established); then from the reverse angle inside the shop, with extras still visible doing their zombie walk through the window; then with a gorgeous match cut on “child of the street” as he sweeps the dirt out the front door, the camera pulling him out onto the sidewalk to join the rest of the company. That seems so fundamental, but I challenge you to find a comparable sequence of shots in Academy Award Winner™ Chicago.

Speaking of Moranis, I trust I’m not the only one who misses him like crazy. (He retired from acting in 1997, a few years after his wife died, in order to raise his kids.) SCTV fans already knew that he could sing a little—one of his recurring characters, Tom Monroe, performed hideous adult-contemporary covers of songs like “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and “Turning Japanese”—but I still recall being surprised by his ability to belt out the climax of this number in his super-nerd voice. Also deeply missed: lyricist Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1991 with decades of potential awesomeness still ahead of him. There’s some crazily sophisticated wordplay in Little Shop: I’m never not tickled by the mouthful of jagged consonants that is “and disinfect terrazzo on their bathroom floors,” and the previous song features the instant classic “shang-a-lang, feel the sturm und drang in the air,” which took me months of listening to the soundtrack CD to decipher as a teenager. In a perfect world, this would have been the first of many collaborations between these two guys; in a less cruel world, they’d at least both still be working.

Then again, there’s no guarantee that they’d still be knocking anybody’s socks off. It’s hard for me to reconcile the Frank Oz who made Death At A Funeral, or even The Score (and I liked The Score), with the Frank Oz who can thrill me here with a two-second close-up of random feet stepping on and off the curb, just by how precisely they change formation. (It’s after Moranis steps in the puddle, just before the line “where depression’s just status quo.”) Even a basic idea like cutting between Moranis and Ellen Greene walking defiantly toward each other on opposing diagonals, with angles that get slightly more acute with each successive shot, comes blazingly alive in the execution, thanks to counterintuitive details like the dude who bumps into Moranis and makes him break stride. Their arrival on opposite sides of the same corner for the big finish is—once again—theatrical blocking that’s been made wholly cinematic. (I’ll overlook the fact that Moranis gets in position a tiny bit late—the only flub I can find.) Don’t get me wrong. I’m stoked to see the new ending in all its glory. But it has a hell of a beginning to live up to.