"Little Shop Of Horrors" (1986) Talkback (Spoilers)

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Matt Zimmer
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Little Shop Of Horrors

Nine times out of ten, when you rewatch a beloved movie from the 1980's, the best case scenario is that it doesn't hold up. Much more commonly, the movie is an embarrassing cringe-fest that makes you groan at the unbelievably blatant sexism, racism, and homophobia. Nine times of ten you are humbled at realizing what awful crap you and society used to tolerate and find acceptable. And forget political incorrectness for a moment. (That is hardly a problem exclusive to the 1980's.) The truth is the actual scripts to most 1980's fare are cliched, dreadful, or both. Even great movies like Back To The Future make me feel kind of small just because they simply are nowhere NEAR as great as remembered. Nine times out of ten, that has been my experience rewatching that decade within the past ten years.

Meet Little Shop Of Horrors, the one 1980's movie out of ten that is still amazing, and holds up perfectly. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the fact that it's a period piece / satire helps with the timeless feel. The movie has an uncommon pedigree too. Directed by Frank Oz, produced by David Geffen, Screenplay by Howard Freaking Ashman, and songs by him and his greatest collaborator Alan Menken. The only shock is that it didn't become an even bigger movie than it already was. Frankly, rewatching it makes me think it's MUCH better than I initially thought. And I loved it. But as an adult I have additional context for what the movie did right that I simply could not fathom as a preteen.

Buckle up. This is going to be a lengthy review. But I rarely feel the need to delve so deeply into a great movie. I tend to reserve the thorough deconstructions for gripe seshes. Nothing will make me happier than to detail why this movie is amazing.

To start off with, the thing I loved second best after the music were the sets. Why? Because not a single shot of the movie was filmed outside. Even the shots in the street are clearly done on a soundstage. As a kid I never could have appreciated what a fantastic idea that is. I never would have noticed it was entirely on a soundstage at all. Why is that brilliant? Because it makes it feel like an actual theater production, in ways you can't properly register on a conscious level if the world were bigger and wider. And I can appreciate the brilliance of this now with it never having occurred to me that it even happened back in 1986, much less why the film is so freaking great for that.

Family Guy did a "Somewhere That's Green" homage a few years ago, but I don't think it remotely captured that song's subversion. The lyrics were 100% written by the same person who wrote the outright sick song "Gaston" from Beauty And The Beast. Its intention is exactly the same (although perhaps not as extreme). But "Gaston" is about a group of people singing about why a loathsome man is great, but every single "compliment" they give him shows instead why he utterly sucks, and they are just too stupid to realize that what they are talking about are major flaws, instead of selling points. But Audrey's Heavenly dream life, in both song and image, strikes me as incredibly mediocre and tedious, and a life to be avoided at all costs. It's outright dreadful. I can't ever justify the townspeople digging Gaston. But the fact that this is Audrey's deepest-held secret wish really makes me empathize with how horrible her life currently is.

My favorite song is "Suddenly Seymour". I could sing along to it on the soundtrack, but I'd never do the justice Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene do it when they belt it out in the movie. I am willing to go out on a limb and say it is the most triumphant and empowering song Ashman and Menken ever did. I am aware of what a statement that is, and yeah, I DO think it outclasses "Under The Sea" and "Be Our Guest" when it comes to the "GoodFeels". Yeah, the melody itself is not as catchy, but as I was watching this, every time Greene and Moranis sang "Suddenly Seymour" in the song I literally said "Holy s-bomb" is pure unadulterated pleasure. I cannot describe it outside of the movie. I'm wondering if the stage show got performances that great out of that specific song ever. It knocks me dead.

I think we need to talk about both Steve Martin and Bill Murray. The genius of the sadistic, leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding, abusive boyfriend of Audrey's being a dentist is comic gold. I don't know how many kids today would relate to that, as going to the dentist has become a relatively pain-free and mundane experience due to better qualities of Novocain being developed since this movie was written. You can literally have a root canal these days and barely feel it. But it feels especially subversive and funny that that's the profession the movie went with. His intro song is amazing too.

And now we discuss Bill Murray. Sorry Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, neither of you apparently created the trope of Bill Murray having a tiny role in a film and winding up the single best thing in it. Frank Oz says, "Hi." I thought his character Arthur wasn't merely funny. He was alarming and disgusting. And I don't know if this was intentional back in the 1980's or not, but I felt sorry for Orin when he's trying to hurt him, and Arthur enjoys it in a clearly sexual way. Which is actually a pretty messed up reaction for me to have to that. Perhaps when Ashman wrote the idea there was some homophobia attached to Orin's squeamishness there. But whether that was intended or not, it's the right reaction. Arthur is dragging Orin into a sexual experience without his consent or prior knowledge. If it were a male patient doing that to a female dentist the psychosexual undercurrent there would be equally troublesome. And I love how dark the idea is that you feel bad for Orin because on some level HE is the one being violated. Orin gets off on pain himself, but I think it feeds his sociopathy rather than his carnal desires and lust. I think what Arthur was doing was confusing an issue for Orin that had been previously straightforward. And I love 40 years of hindsight because I can pick up on these things that I never would have registered before MeToo or the Wokeness movement. It's pretty cool.

Let me be blunt. Despite the sunny, uplifting music, the themes in the movie itself are super dark. Things got so depressing at one point that the producers had to reshoot the entire ending upon realizing the test audience wasn't about tto sign off on Audrey II killing the heroes and destroying the world.

Which is another thing about the movie I like. It's imperfect. If the ending feels like a bit of a rush-job and unsatisfying, it's because it had to be scrambled upon in the last minute. But really, Mushnik's "disappearance" simply being glossed over at the end would not have been the problem it is if the world HAD been destroyed. They couldn't exactly "course-correct" that specific loose end into a happy ending. Another interesting flaw to me is that Seymour indulging Audrey II even once is irrational. He feeds him a person once, does he actually think it stops there? In my mind one of the tensions of the movie shouldn't exist because a smarter person than Seymour would have let the plant starve once it got to that point.

But the 1980's has SO few bright spots in hindsight. I am very happy to report Little Shop Of Horrors is one of them. *****.
 

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