Little Shop of Horrors isn’t the first film with a lost alternate ending, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting. Having stuck resolutely to the downbeat absurdity of the source material, director Frank Oz needed to make an abrupt about-face when test audiences hated the way the movie ended. A happier finale was put together and the film went on to become a justly celebrated cult classic. The newly released Blu-ray edition finally restores the original version, along with the one that ultimately saw the inside of theaters. Which one is better? With a disc like this, it really doesn’t matter. Hit the jump for the full review.
The history of the project itself deserves its own feature-length movie. It began as a zero-budget production from famous cult filmmaker Roger Corman, who reportedly shot it in just two days. It was uniformly wretched, a tacky would-be comedy notable only for the first-ever onscreen appearance by Jack Nicholson. (He played the masochist in the dentist’s office.)
Then – in one of those acts of pop-culture genius too marvelous to be believed – songwriter Howard Ashman re-envisioned it as an off-Broadway musical. His campy tunes and knowing tone found the humor that the original production lost, positing it as a satire of America’s entrepreneur spirit draped in the trappings of 50s-era monster movies. It proved a smash hit, and when Oz took on the task of making it a feature film, the results were fantastic (even with the happier ending).
Young Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) lives in the dingy basement of a failing flower shop, lusting for the ditzy girl behind the counter (Ellen Greene) and enduring all manner of abuse from his boss Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia). The arrival of a “strange and interesting new plant” turns his fortunes around, as customers flock to see it and money starts rolling in. Unfortunately, the plant – named Audrey II after the object of his affection – needs human blood to survive, and while feeding it from his own pricked fingers works for a while, Seymour soon needs to move on to bigger targets. First comes Audrey’s abusive dentist boyfriend (Steve Martin in the performance of his career). Then Mushnik himself goes into the plant’s maw. As Audrey II keeps growing and Seymour’s success increases, the question becomes just how far this meek little flower boy is willing to go.
Apparently, it was a little too far for the test audiences. Ashman himself rewrote the finale, and the film did reasonably well as a result, but fans always wondered what became of the original ending. Until this Blu-ray, it hasn’t been available as an integral part of the movie. Now, fans can see both versions in beautiful hi-def (along with two audio commentaries from Oz and a behind-the-scenes feature discussing the changes). The disc also includes a few deleted scenes, the trailers and a feature from 1986 discussing the film’s development history.
The intended ending definitely gets grim, though the silliness remains and the creature-feature elements are a joy to behold. It matches the Faustian spirit of the rest of the film quite well, and brings Ashman’s satirical point home in ways the original ending couldn’t. On the other hand, it’s hard not to like Seymour and Audrey, and to hope for something better for them: a fate provided by the theatrical version. Both versions work on their own terms, and neither one feels like a cop-out. I can’t readily think of any other film that works quite so well in two completely separate ways.
And regardless of which version, you prefer, the remainder of the film is marvelous. The wonderful songs (co-written by Ashman and Alan Menken) drip with cleverness and wit: poking fun at the characters even as they encourage us to side with their dilemmas. Audrey’s “Somewhere That’s Green,” for instance, alternates between the camp banality of her suburban dream world and the sad realities of her unhappy life. We laugh at what we see, but we also see the injustices and greed of our own reality reflected in its over-the-top ridiculousness. (It’s also interesting to hear shades of Ashman and Menken’s later Disney compilations in the DNA of these.) Every song carries the same toe-tapping energy, which expands into the film as a whole. It’s a musical for people who hate musicals, a horror movie for the “ick, spiders!” crowd. Strange, funny, a little creepy and utterly infectious, its like has never appeared in movies before or since, and its originality becomes a selling point all on its own.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter which version you prefer. The new Blu-ray presents them both with equal reverence and respect: allowing the consumer to compare, contrast and go with whatever finale fits their mood. George Lucas could learn a thing or two from that approach. In the meantime, let’s just be glad that the people behind Little Shop of Horrors care about their audience more than he does.