On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of this decade of our own, the human race not-so-suddenly encountered an informative film podcast hosted by three old friends.
And this (hopefully) educational episode surfaced, as such indie podcasts often do, in the seemingly most common and likely of places…
The Black Case Diaries!
Well, it’s that time of year again. The temperature outside is dropping, Spirit Halloween stores are taking over vacant retail spaces, and the evening air is starting to smell like woodsmoke. Summer’s end has come, and Autumn is here!
And since the end of September is fast approaching, we thought it was the perfect time to talk about something a little…horrifying. In December of 1986, a strange and mysterious plant appeared on theatre screens across America. Cared for by a soft-spoken man named Seymour, the botanical oddity quickly seized the attention of audiences throughout the country. The only problem was that this plant didn’t feed on sunshine and water, but instead craved human blood!
Little Shop of Horrors is not your average Hollywood musical film. It’s darkly funny, with the gritty texture of the off-Broadway production on which it was based. While musicals like The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music featured brightly colored locations and sweeping cinematography, Little Shop of Horrors takes place on the bleak and infamous street called “Skid Row,” and follows a protagonist that feeds people to an evil plant from outer space.
This wonderfully odd film appeals to the strangeness in all of us and gives a biting commentary (pun intended) on human nature. Not to mention, it’s absolutely packed with hilarious comedic performances, incredible songs, and mind-blowing special effects!
So, let’s head back to an early year in a decade not too long before our own to explore the seemingly innocent and unlikely origin of the greatest threat to human existence, in…Little Shop of Horrors!
Before Little Shop of Horrors became a movie musical, it was a stage musical. And before it was a stage musical, it was a movie! So, let’s talk about the origins of this odd story, and how it went from movie to musical to movie musical!
- In the late 1950s, director Roger Corman started experimenting with horror-comedy films. A studio manager that was friends with Corman told him that a film was about to wrap with no projects on deck. This gave Corman a funny idea, and he decided to give himself a unique challenge. He asked the manager to leave up the sets from the previous movie so he could come in and shoot another film in only two days.
- Corman and screenwriter Charles B. Griffith brainstormed for a day and developed the general plot of a horror/comedy B-movie about a man-eating plant. Griffith then spent about two weeks writing the screenplay before the film began production with a budget between $15,000 and $22,500.
- For years, rumors circulated that Corman shot the film on the infamous 2-day deadline because of a bet. Others speculated that he wanted to throw together one last low-budget film before a new rule went into effect, which would require filmmakers to pay actors residuals for their performances after films had been released. Corman has never confirmed this and says it was more of a joke–he did it to see if it was possible.
- The movie turned out to be a joke in more ways than one. First of all, audiences found the film to be hilarious, including a cameo appearance from rising star Jack Nicholson as a masochist. Second, the two-day filming schedule cemented the film in B-movie history, and it was widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s most notorious jokes.
- But, as you might’ve guessed, the influence of the film didn’t stop there. For years, the film was replayed on late-night TV shows, which is how a young teenager named Howard Ashman first saw it.
- In 1979, Ashman wrote and directed a musical called, “God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater,” with musician Alan Menken (it was their first collaboration). The musical was a hit at the WPA theatre where it premiered but hadn’t done well outside of those productions.
- Ashman wanted their next project to be fun and remembered the off-beat silliness of Little Shop of Horrors. The next time the film aired on TV, Ashman taped it, and Menken immediately saw the musical potential for the story.
- According to Kyle Renick, then-producing director of the WPA theatre where Little Shop of Horrors would eventually premiere, it took the theatre a year to secure the rights to the film, and 8 months for Ashman and Menken to write the musical.
- Ashman wrote the book and lyrics, while Menken composed the music. Menken said, “I decided that I wanted the musical approach to come from some early 1960s music—the girl group sound. It has a very dark, menacing ring. You can almost hear whips and chains in the background. There were two ponytailed teenagers in the movie and we decided to turn them into a black trio that functions as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action.”
- Although the plot was similar, Ashman made major changes to the story. He cut out characters and changed the ending. Every death in the original movie was accidental, while Ashman’s version showed the protagonist, Seymour, killing people and feeding them to the plant.
- The subject matter may seem gruesome, but because of the humor in the show, audiences didn’t seem to mind.
- For Audrey II, the theatre hired Martin Robinson, a Muppet performer known for portraying Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street. Apparently, Little Shop of Horrors was Robinson’s favorite film, and he had been dreaming of developing the plant for years. He would finally get his chance.
- In May of 1982, Little Shop of Horrors opened at the WPA theatre to rave reviews. It quickly became a crowd favorite, selling out almost every show. After a couple of months, the WPA was approached by at least 26 different producers that wanted to move the show to Broadway. Eventually, it opened at the Orpheum Theatre on Broadway, where it ran for 2,209 performances.
- As the musical’s popularity continued, talks of a major motion picture began to emerge. Producer David Geffen, who helped bring the show to Broadway, signed on to produce a film adaptation of the play.
1986 FILM SYNOPSIS
- Seymour Krelbourne is a young assistant at a struggling flower shop in Manhattan. He pines after his beautiful coworker, Audrey, as they both dream of one day breaking free of their financial burdens and escaping Skid Row. One day, Seymour witnesses a total eclipse of the sun and discovers a very strange and unusual plant that he names Audrey II. Just when Seymour’s boss is about the close the shop for good, the exotic plant attracts a great deal of attention to the store, allowing it to stay open. As Seymour cares for the plant, he soon discovers that the only way to make it grow is to feed it human flesh! Although he doesn’t initially want to hurt anyone, Seymour must choose between his morals and his only chance at finding a way out of Skid Row and starting a new life.
MAKING OF THE MOVIE
- Years after producing the Broadway musical and the feature film, David Geffen admitted that he initially thought that a musical version of the 1960 film Little Shop of Horrors was possibly the worst idea he had ever heard. Of course, audiences disagreed, as the show was an undeniable commercial and critical success.
- Geffen’s original plan for the film was to not surpass a 6 million dollar budget, and have Stephen Spielberg as a producer, with Martin Scorsese as the film’s director. This plan never came to pass.
- The film would eventually reach an estimated budget of about 25 million dollars. Instead of Martin Scorsese as a director, Geffen approached puppet master Frank Oz. Oz had previously co-directed The Dark Crystal with Jim Henson, and just recently finished directing his first muppet film, Muppets Take Manhattan. Initially, Oz wanted to turn down the project, as he was unsure how to make it work. It was actually the concept of the three women that acted as a Greek chorus, narrating the story on stage, that convinced him to take the job. He felt like they were the key to making the story flow, and they added a certain magic and style to the production.
- Frank Oz started the directing process by storyboarding almost every scene, especially musical numbers with Audrey II. This way, he could figure out exactly how big the sets needed to be, and how to work around the limitations of the plant. Each scene averages about 30 takes, and sometimes the takes would last only a few seconds.
- Oz wanted the film to flow seamlessly between scenes. One way he achieved this was by planning out each scene’s transition. If you watch the movie carefully, you will notice how well the transitions fit together.
- In many scenes, Oz utilized tight angles and close-ups to help the audience connect with the main characters. He refrained from using wide shots, because he felt like they made the setting look grand and very “Hollywood.”
- Howard Ashman stayed with the project to write the screenplay for the film, and also penned additional lyrics. When Frank Oz was planning scenes for the film, Ashman was there to help him through the process. Ashman told Oz that it wasn’t just the music that had rhythm, but that there was a rhythm to his dialogue as well. Oz said that advice was incredibly helpful.
- Ashman also made sure that Oz understood that the musical wasn’t meant to be subtle. Ashman and Menken’s songs don’t ease the audience into the music, the music just starts and the viewer either accepts it or they don’t. The film is unapologetic in every aspect.
- The entire film was shot over 6 months at Pinewood Studios in the UK, on the 007 stage. Oz wanted the movie to be a strange hybrid of stage musical and film, so he knew they would have to create their own universe and environment for the story to take place. Many films are concerned with realism, making their environments look as close as possible to real-world situations. In Little Shop of Horrors, everything is real to the characters, and whether or not the sets and backdrops look realistic to the audience is immaterial. That being said, Audrey II is as real as it gets!
- Roy Walker was the production designer for Little Shop and is also known for The Shining as well. It took him and his team three months to build a Skid Row replica. Walker created three different sets for the flower shop in the film. One set was for people to act alone. Another set was for people to act with the plant, and the third set was specifically for the finale, when Audrey II destroys the store.
- In order to make the set look as American as possible, Walker gathered up huge containers with trash cans to place on the street corners of skid row.
- The key to Little Shop of Horrors was Audrey II, and having a director with puppet experience was vital for production. Oz had previous experience working with designer Lyle Conway in Jim Henson’s creature shop. Lyle was the mastermind behind Audrey II.
- According to Frank Oz, it took Conway and his team 9 months to prepare the plants for the shoot, and they continued to work on them even during production.
- Oz said that Lyle researched extensively about plants in order to create the beautiful textures and colors within Audrey II. At the end of production he and his team had created 15,000 handmade leaves, 20,000 feet of vine, and 11.5 miles of cable for all the plants combined!
- Conway created 7 different sizes of Audrey II, and some that performed different actions for the movie. With each size, more people had to operate the plant. When the plant was small, only two or three people needed to operate it. But by the end of the film, about sixty people stood in a tank underneath the massive plant, looking at monitors as they operated its movement. One person even stood inside the plant’s mouth to make it move, while Brian Henson was camouflaged in a suit of vines and leaves as he helped operate the head.
- In order to make vines that would bend seamlessly without wearing down, the filmmakers had to approach the Atomic Energy Institute to research the best metal core to use.
As we mentioned before, Little Shop of Horrors features music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman. Composer Miles Goodman wrote the score for the feature film. Goodman was a prolific composer who wrote music for films like A Muppet Christmas Carol and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. In this film, he used the foreboding sounds of organ music in his theme for Audrey II.
PROLOGUE (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS)
- Little Shop of Horrors opens with a drumroll that leads into the prologue music, followed by an iconic narration, setting up the story. This opening gives off the vibes of a classic horror B movie, much like the one on which it was based. The style of music shifts into a 1960s era number, and as the camera takes us through 16 different cues, we hear the voices of the greek chorus that will lead us through the story.
- As we mentioned before, Frank Oz almost turned down this movie. In a 1986 LA Times article he says “I didn’t think I could get my hands around it. There were too many elements. It was a period piece, it was horror, it was comedy, there were 14 songs and a puppet that was going to weigh a ton.” He was finally able to bury these worries and take a chance on the film, and one of the reasons he did so was because of the three muses.
- The singers bring the camera around the set, introducing the location and characters to the audience as they manage to stay dry during a rainstorm. They provide a type of visual exposition, ending with our main character Seymour.
SKID ROW (DOWNTOWN)
- Skid Row is the first ensemble song, and further introduces the setting and intentions of the characters. We hear the two leads, Seymour and Audrey, sing for the first time, and learn more about their characters.
- Frank Oz planned “Skid Row” a year before shooting, and the actors knew exactly how many steps they needed to take during the song.
- The chorus walks in an off-beat way on purpose, to further drive home the uneasiness and discomfort of their lives.
- The song ends with a medium shot of all the actors singing out toward the camera, in a unifying moment. Frank Oz purposely kept the shot tight because he didn’t want the number to feel grandiose.
- Seymour introduces his boss, Mr. Mushnik, to a strange and interesting plant that he named after his coworker and love-interest, Audrey. Immediately after placing the small plant in the window, a man steps into the office to inquire about it.
- According to Frank Oz, Christopher Guest (who played the customer in this scene) would play the scene much too seriously. Finally, he gave a over-the-top performance that made it into the final cut.
- In the song, Da-doo, Seymour explains that he discovered the plant during a total eclipse of the sun. The song features one of the only optical effects in the film, as a light shines around Audrey II.
GROW FOR ME
- After just one day, Audrey II’s presence has boosted business for Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop. However, the plant seems to be wilting, and Seymour stays late to care for it. It’s in this song that he discovers the plant’s lust for blood.
- For this scene, only a couple people needed to operate the plant. When Seymour leaves the room, Audrey II breaks through its coffee can and grows. The special effects team achieved this effect by placing the plant behind the coffee can, and just moving it closer to the camera to create the illusion that it was growing.
SOMEWHERE THAT’S GREEN
- In this song, Audrey reveals to the audience her true dreams of marrying Seymour and moving into a suburban home with a chain link fence. She highlights the “luxurious” lifestyle she pines for, taken straight from 1950s sitcoms.
- For this scene Ellen Greene wanted to make sure that she really felt at home before shooting, and spent time in her on-screen bedroom.
- The scenery for this song is an excellent example of how Frank Oz leaned into the theatre and pushed the boundaries.
- The scene is packed with visual jokes that, according to Frank Oz, test audiences reacted to even more than they had hoped. One such visual is an animated bird that lands on Audrey’s hand, akin to Cinderella. The scene took immense planning, especially for that effect to work well.
- In order to get a real magazine that they liked for the shot, Frank Oz flipped through dozens of old magazines until he found a Better Homes and Garden magazine that had the perfect imagery of homes and appliances that he was looking for. They used the magazine with permission from Better Homes and Gardens.
- When Howard Ashman wrote the screenplay, he expressed that he wanted a continuous shot from Audrey’s room to the rooftop, leading seamlessly into the next song. To make that happen, Frank Oz needed to put two cranes on top of each other, as there didn’t exist a crane tall enough to film the sequence.
SOME FUN NOW
- “Somewhere That’s Green” transitions to this next song, where the greek chorus sings about the “fun” Seymour is having taking care of Audrey II.
- Since the muses are up at the top of the buildings, they are surrounded by billboard space. Oz hates product placement, so an art director suggested that they use a product from the 50s that no longer existed for the billboard, hence the Chooz billboard.
- The scene originally showed more footage of Seymour feeding Audrey II, but test audiences were squeamish, so Oz cut out much of it.
- In this song, we meet Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend, a dentist played by Steve Martin. The song opens with Martin riding a motorcycle in front of a 3-foot model, composited onto a blue screen behind him.
- Before Roy Walker built the set, Oz had counted out how many steps Martin needed to take while filming the number. The steps needed to match up perfectly with the music.
- Although he has one of the biggest roles of the celebrity cameos in the film, Martin was only on set for 6 weeks of shooting. Martin brought a lot of hilarious ideas to the role, and worked hard to avoid comparisons with characters like Fonzie.
- For one shot in this song, Lyle Conway created a gigantic human mouth for Steve to sing into, while holding a huge dental tool to scale.
FEED ME (GIT IT)
- After Seymour sees Audrey ride off with her abusive boyfriend, Audrey II speaks for the first time. It tries to convince Seymour to kill people for plant food, offering him anything he could possibly want. This is the moment when he decides to make a deal with the devil.
- Because the plant couldn’t move fast enough to sing along with Seymour (Rick Moranis), Rick was forced to film sequences in slow motion, so they could be later sped-up. When he’s singing alone on screen, he’s singing at a normal speed and the film was 24 frames per second. When he’s singing on screen with the plant, he’s moving slowly and the speed is 16 frames per second! It was like this for every scene filmed with a talking/singing Audrey II.
- After Audrey’s boyfriend disappears (because Seymour fed him to Audrey II), Audrey is free to pursue a romantic relationship with Seymour. Suddenly Seymour toes the fine line between funny and sweet, as Howard Ashman meant for the song to be very tongue-in-cheek, yet the characters are taking it very seriously.
- The imagery for the scene references Romeo and Juliet, which foreshadows a not-so-happy end for the two protagonists.
- At the end of the scene, the actors run up a fire escape and embrace with the sun behind them. The scene took about 36 takes, and they used the final take. Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene both got lip burns from kissing.
- When Seymour cut up Orin, Audrey’s boyfriend, he was spotted by his boss, Mr. Mushnik. In “Supertime,” Mushnik confronts Seymour, threatening him with a gun. Seymour has the option of leaving town, letting Mushnik take over the plant. But instead, he lets Audrey II eat his boss.
- The scene is incredibly dark, but is offset by the quick transition into the next song.
MEEK SHALL INHERIT
- After feeding two people to the plant, Seymour has found immense fame and success. But, the plant wants more. Some of the song’s imagery was inspired by “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
MEAN GREEN MOTHER FROM OUTER SPACE
- In the theatrical release of the film, Seymour confronts Audrey II just after the plant attempts to eat Audrey. The scene escalates as Audrey II reveals that it is being from outer space, here to take over the human race. It’s clear that the plant is too powerful for Seymour to control, and he must destroy it.
- This scene was shot in bits and pieces, but pieced together to create a cohesive musical number. At this point, the plant had sixty people operating it, with giant levers and machinery. On set, the music was slowed down so the operators could mouth the words correctly with the song.
- The end of this scene is different in the original version of the film, but in the theatrical release, we see Seymour rise from the rubble of the flower shop and electrocute Audrey II.
After Seymour defeats the plant, we see him and Audrey start their fairytale life…with another Audrey II not far away.
- Rick Moranis as Seymour Krelborn
- We all know him from movies like Spaceballs, Ghostbusters, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
- Rick was cast before they even knew he could sing! Geffen had Rick in mind for the role the entire time. He even saw Rick at a concert and told him that he would star in his movie someday.
- Ellen Greene as Audrey
- She has been in films like The Cooler, and Talk Radio.
- She had performed Audrey on the Off-Off Broadway for 4 years and David Geffen wanted her for the part because he knew she would be perfect. Warner Bros had actually wanted Barabara Streisand for the role.
- The three young girls that act as a Greek Chorus or muses that lead us through the movie were:
- Tisha Campbell as Chiffon
- She was most notably also in Martin and My Wife and Kids.
- Tichina Arnold as Crystal
- She has been in The Main Event and The Lena Baker Story.
- Michelle Weeks as Ronette
- She has not been in much but a TV movie called Norman’s Corner.
- Tisha Campbell as Chiffon
- Vincent Gardenia as Mr. Mushnik
- Known for parts in Moonstruck, Death Wish and more.
- Levi Stubbs as the voice of Audrey II
- Most well known for his role as Audry II, as well as Captain N: The Game Master.
- Steve Martin as Orin Scrivello (the dentist)
- A very popular comedian known for roles in Roxanne and Cheaper by the Dozen.
- Jim Belushi as Patrick Martin
- Known for many movies including Red Heat and K-9.
- John Candy as Wink Wilkinson
- A comedian who we just talked about in our John Hughes episode!
- Frank Oz didn’t want any ad-libbing but he made exceptions for some of the comedic actors in the film, like John Candy, who was known to be one of the best ad libbers in the business.
- Bill Murray as Arthur Denton (the masochist)
- Well known for many roles such as Ghostbusters.
- When Bill Murray came in to do his role, he wasn’t sure about the dialogue. So, even though Steve Martin’s lines are completely scripted, Bill Murray’s weren’t. Every take was different, and the men decided how to end the scene together.
- Stanley Jones as the Narrator
- He is a voice actor most known for his roles as Scourge in the Transformers animated series, and Lex Luthor in the Justice League animated series.
- When the test audience saw Little Shop of Horrors, the screening went very well. That was, until the end of the film. In the stage musical Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour and Audrey do not end up somewhere that’s green. Instead, Seymour suffers greatly for his deeds, when his true love dies at the hands of Audrey II. Seymour then feeds Audrey to Audrey II, and gets eaten himself.
- Then, the muses sing the finale, “Don’t Feed the Plants,” which describes how Audrey II and its clippings spread across the country, eventually taking over.
- When he was adapting the screenplay, Howard Ashman felt it was important to keep the original ending. First of all, it drives home the message of the story. Secondly, fans of the musical might be disappointed if the film ends differently. Frank Oz was on Ashman’s side, and convinced David Geffen to let them shoot the ending that Ashman had written. Geffen told them from the beginning that it wouldn’t work, and that they would eventually need to change it. They went ahead anyway, hoping Geffen was wrong.
- Frank Oz said in an Entertainment Weekly article in 2017 that, “We [screened] the film the way Howard and I wanted it. The audience was clapping after every number. Then, when Seymour and Audrey died, they turned like an icebox. The reaction was so bad, Warner Bros. wasn’t going to release it. When one dies in the theater, one dies and comes back for a curtain call, but in the movie you don’t come back for a curtain call. The audience was very angry.”
- Special effects artist Richard Conway developed a fantastic sequence of the plants, taking over the US. It was dark, yet comical, with groundbreaking visuals and incredible sound design. It was essentially a mini monster movie, ending with a comically large, “THE END?!?” as a plant covered the statue of liberty.
- Only 13% of the test audience said they would recommend the film, so Oz and Ashman worked on a new ending and called back the actors for re-shoots. Unfortunately, this also meant that Conway’s effects wouldn’t be seen by most audiences, which Frank Oz felt was the real tragedy.
- Oz has said that he learned a very valuable lesson from the experience. While he prefers the original ending (and he knew Ashman did too) he understood that he wasn’t making a movie for him, he was making it for millions of people.
- The film grossed $39 million at the box office which, from the viewpoint of the studio, was considered an underperformer. However, it became a smash hit upon its home video release in 1987 on home video.
- Roger Ebert said in his review: “All of the wonders of Little Shop of Horrors are accomplished with an offhand, casual charm. This is the kind of movie that cults are made of, and after Little Shop finishes its first run, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it develop as one of those movies that fans want to include in their lives.”
- The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: one for Best Visual Effects and one for Best Original Song for “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”. The song was the first Oscar-nominated song to contain profanity in the lyrics and also the first to be sung by a villain. The film was also nominated for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Original Score at the 44th Golden Globe Awards.
- Heather Henson plays the distraught young dental patient with the headgear on.
- Pieces of Orin the dentist’s body were created for Seymour to toss into Audrey II’s mouth, including Steve Martin’s severed head, dripping with blood. This was deemed too graphic, and the pieces were used, but they are covered in newspapers so the audience wouldn’t see them.
- The film was originally going to be gorier. For example, there was supposed to be blood on the walls of the dentist office.
- If you watch the original ending, there is a scene where Seymour tries to commit suicide after Audrey dies. The scene has no musical score because it became clear that they would not use it in the final cut.
When Ashman first had the idea to turn a B horror film into a musical, it was because he wanted to make something fun. And boy, was he successful. Little Shop of Horrors is weird and wonderful, with a solid story and killer musical numbers. Its lyrics are heartfelt and hilarious, and its performances are to die for.
It’s been forty years and yet, this film seems to get better every time we watch it. So if you’re hungry for a good time, turn on this treat of a film. It’s suppertime!
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- Nolfi J. Little Shop of Horrors. Entertainment Weekly. 2017;(1487/1488):43. Accessed September 6, 2021. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=125669161&site=ehost-live
- Willman C. Horror of `horrors’! Entertainment Weekly. 1998;(421):84. Accessed September 6, 2021. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=320783&site=ehost-live
- Shewey D. Little Shop’s big comeback. Advocate. 2003;(902):66-67. Accessed September 6, 2021. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=11286056&site=ehost-live