As it turns 30, Mickey Noonan bleeds joy for the mean green mother from outta space with the killer doo-wop soundtrack.
Alongside Scrooged and The Muppet Christmas Carol, Little Shop of Horrors is one of my stock three Yuletide movies. Yes, I realise it’s not about Christmas in the slightest, but there’s something about the bright colours, the music, the lack of hope in humanity and the carnivorous plant that can only be sated by human blood that gets my bells jingling.
Seymour Krelborn is a nerdy no-hoper, working for food and shelter at Mushnik’s (failing) Flower Shop on Skid Row (“where depression’s just status quo”), besotted with tragic co-worker Audrey, but with nothing to offer. See: festive as fuck.
Mushnik’s all set to shut up shop for good, when Audrey suggests they display a weird plant Seymour recently bought from an old Chinese man (for $1.95) during a total eclipse of the sun. Life in Skid Row suddenly looks brighter as the shop flourishes and our hero gets fame and all of its trappings – and his woman. But only Seymour knows his leafy acquisition, named Audrey II (‘Tuey’) for his love, will only thrive if fed human-life liquor. C’mon now! Tinsel that!
OK, here’s a Christmas connection: Little Shop… is unapologetically pantomimic, with massive set pieces, larger than life characters and songs so big they burst off the screen without the need for 3D*. Based on Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s off-Broadway smash, itself a take on Roger Corman’s low-budget 1960 film, Frank Oz has gone full-on, balls-out musical theatre. And it’s soul-swelling.
“Some might argue that Little Shop of Horrors is a love story at heart. Bullshit. This is horticultural Faust.”
Usually the hero and heroine are little more than annoying plot movers, with all the joy coming from the sidekicks, but Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene simply shine as Seymour and Audrey. Two years on from playing Lewis in Ghostbusters, Moranis has absolutely nailed ‘endearing nerd’, and you never stop rooting for Seymour, even when he’s becoming a bit of a murderer.
Ellen Greene imbues Audrey with a sweetness that isn’t cloying and a vulnerability that’s touching, never weak. And she’s one hell of a torch singer, delivering even the funniest lines with massive heart (“I know Seymour’s the greatest, but I’m dating a semi-sadist…”) not to mention lung power.
But oh the sidekicks! As Orin Scrivello DDS, Steve Martin pretty much steals the whole show with one song (Dentist! – not for the dentally squeamish), playing this nasty little piece of shit like a grand guignol Elvis, all swagger, violence and nitrous oxide-induced mania. He’s almost – almost – pipped to the absurd brilliance post by Bill Murray as a masochistic patient and who, in typical Murricane fashion, took an idea and improvised the hell out of it.
Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops lends his voice to Audrey II, the villainous weed of the piece, that beautiful baritone causing spine shivers as he demands those “red hot treats, the sticky licky sweets” Tuey craves.
Cameo appearances read like a who’s who of 1980s excellence: John Candy as WSKID DJ Wink Wilkinson; Christopher Guest as the first customer Mushnik’s has seen in forever; James Belushi as the man wanting to sell Audrey IIs worldwide; Miriam Margolyes as Scrivello’s dental nurse. And eagle-eyed/obsessive watchers will spot Danny John-Jules doo-wopping on the street.
Some might argue that Little Shop of Horrors is a love story at heart. Bullshit. This is horticultural Faust. Seymour makes his pact with a carnivorous plant, and in her relationship with Scrivello, Audrey sells her safety for financial security. Though it’s (sort of) set in the 1960s, Oz is definitely pointing out the dangers of 1980s consumerism and greed.
And then there’s Ronette, Chiffon and Crystal (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks and Tisha Campbell): a Greek chorus with attitude, flitting on and off screen in a series of matching outfits and soaring harmonies, linking scenes and pushing the plot forward.
It’s a film entirely in sync with its story, cast, set, dark humour and kick-ass songs. It’s knowing, it’s smart and it’s exhilarating. I could listen to Skid Row (Downtown) on loop for hours. In fact, I do. I’m probably doing it now. And it’s so damn stirring it sometimes stirs a bit of dust right into my eye.
I appreciate that for some folk the word ‘musical’ makes their arsehole itch – I’m one of them, and have similar feelings about ‘sci-fi’. But don’t dismiss Little Shop… because it’s not the usual fare of either camp. If it’s the horticultural aspect that’s putting you off, I can’t help you: there’s no getting away from the plant.
Or at least there wasn’t in the original ending, where Seymour is devoured by Audrey II, his glasses contemptuously spat onto the rubble, before the Tueys go on an apocalyptic plantzilla rampage – the director’s cut. Or as I’m renaming it, “2016”.
*My mate’s mum once gave her two Quality Street cellophane wrappers and told her it made everything 3D. We played along for a week.
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Aged five, Mickey Noonan shoved an apple pip up her nose to see what happened. Older, wiser but sadly without a nose-tree, Standard Issue's editor remains curious about the world. Likes running, jumping and static trapeze.