(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
Before it was an Off Broadway musical and before there was a 1986 film based on said musical, The Little Shop of Horrors was a cheapie directed by Roger Corman. Featuring a screenplay by Charles B. Griffith and sets left over from A Bucket of Blood, this 1960 motion picture stands as a hilarious blend of absurd comedy and horror with a particularly buoyant spirit thrown in for good measure.
It took just two days and around $300,000 to make The Little Shop of Horrors, with Corman wanting to make the most of his time. He initially had no desire to make another comedy after A Bucket of Blood, but the idea came along and was too good to pass up. Word around the campfire is that alcohol may have greased the wheels, which isn’t that hard to believe.
The film opens on the flower shop of Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles). He operates the store with his two employees, the lovely Audrey (Jackie Joseph) and the ham-fisted Seymour (Jonathan Haze). Seymour develops a plant that is a cross between a butterwort and a Venus flytrap, but he quickly discovers that it doesn’t eat normal flower food. One thing leads to another and it’s revealed that the plant likes blood.
Seymour starts by nursing his creation with his own blood and the plant grows, generating big business for Mushnick’s shop. But when the plant develops the ability to speak and starts craving larger meals, Seymour makes a few deadly choices. All the while, Mushnick enjoys the popularity until the police come knocking.
The Little Shop of Horrors works because it’s a hysterical, loopy jaunt. It accomplishes what it sets out to do and doesn’t let the lack of budget get in the way, with Corman’s breakneck speed advancing the finished product. There isn’t a fussy shot in the bunch, with the performers joining in the free-wheeling style. There’s vitality to this sort of scallywag style, a belligerent unruliness that creates irresistible cool.
The Little Shop of Horrors is so over the top that it just has to work. There’s a scene with Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient named Wilbur Force, for instance. He can’t wait to have his teeth drilled, which sets up a sequence involving Seymour because Seymour’s killed the dentist (John Shaner). One thing leads to another and the plant has more food.
Haze’s Seymour is a remarkably awkward character, teeming with a general inability to do anything right. He lives with his hypochondriac mother (Myrtle Vail), who stands as an antecedent to today’s helicopter parents. And he’s in love with Audrey, much to the mortification of mommy dearest. Haze’s innate inelegance helps these details fill with an almost agonizing gawkiness.
There are also cops. Wally Campo narrates the movie and stars as Detective Sergeant Joe Fink, while Jack Warford stars as his partner Detective Frank Stoolie. The names are on-the-nose but still droll, with a Dragnet style added to the proceedings. This was Griffith’s idea and it sure does deepen the quality of farce in the picture.
Like A Bucket of Blood, Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors proves just how much can be done without money or time. In just 73 minutes, the filmmaker tells a better story and generates heartier laughs than many efforts with double the time and triple the green. There’s an unsullied delight from start to finish, as the movie tracks poor Seymour from his meek beginnings to his inexorably fertile martyrdom.