CAPSULE: THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Roger Corman

FEATURING: Jonathan Haze, Mel Welles, Jackie Joseph, Dick Miller, Jack Nicholson, Charles B. Griffith

PLOT:  Mild-mannered delivery boy Seymour breeds a new plant in an attempt to impress

Still from Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

his boss and the sexy cashier at his flower shop; the talking mutant Venus flytrap grows to extraordinary size, but only so long as it is fed a constant supply of blood and bodies.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough, though it certainly marches to the beat of its own drummer.  Filmed in two days from a quickie script by Roger Corman scribe Charles B. Griffith written on the fly to take advantage of some leftover storefront sets, Horrors was seat-of-the-pants filmmaking.  Aided by an inspired cast, the inherent quirkiness of the Faustian plant food fable shines through.  Often called the best movie ever shot in 48 hours, The Little Shop of Horrors is a fast, fun ride that every cinephile should check out at least once; it’s a triumph of imagination, dedication, and sheer luck over budgetary constraints.  It’s too bad it’s not a little bit weirder.

COMMENTS: “I’ve eaten in flower shops all over the world, and I’ve noticed that the places that have the most weird and unusual plants do the best business.”  That’s the sort of universe Little Shop of Horrors takes place in, one where minor characters stand by casually chomping on salted gardenias and handing out plot advice to the principals.  Set in a mythical Skid Row, “the part of town everybody knows about but nobody wants to see—where the tragedies are deeper, the ecstasies wilder and the crime rate consistently higher than anywhere else,” this is black comedy circa 1960.  Not only is murder made a joke, but more scandalous taboos like sadomasochism and prostitution are part of the fabric of daily life on Skid Row.  Man-eating plant aside, the movie’s greatest charm is the cast of crazy supporting characters that pop in and out of the story: the floral gastronome, Seymour’s hypochondriac mom, an unlucky woman whose relatives are constantly dying, two flat-affect flatfeet (broad spoofs of the duo from “Dragnet”), a pair of bouncy high school cheerleaders, a hooker who persistently tries to pick up a hypnotized trick, and a sadistic dentist and his masochistic patient (the latter played by Nicholson).  The main players are good as well: Jackie Joseph is an acceptably ditzy and breathy love interest, and Jonathan Haze plays nebbish Seymour like Jerry Lewis under a successful regimen of epilepsy medication to control his spasms and vocal contortions.  But it’s otherwise unheralded Mel Welles as exasperated florist Gravis Mushnik who actually carries the picture.  He’s a Jewish immigrant stereotype with a gift for casually mangling the English language; even the signs he hangs on the shop wall reflect that special Mushnik linguistic twist (“we don’t letting you spend so much,” one brags, in a typical Mushnik “finger of speech”).  He can be mercenary and curt, but of all the characters the audience identifies the most with him and his befuddlement at the nutcases surrounding him.  The entire company of Corman stock players seem to be peaking at the same time; the dialogue is punchy: witty lines delivered with near-perfect timing.  Corman’s direction is typically competent and unobtrusive, allowing the script and the actors to shine through.  You may have guessed already that the emphasis in this horror/comedy is heavily on the funny side of the spectrum, but there is something spooky and nightmarish about the plant moaning “feed me!” with the selfish persistence of a newborn child.  And a dark cloud of fate hangs over the film; as likable and seemingly harmless as he may be, Seymour is doomed from the first time he gives in to the plant’s demands so that he can preserve his shot a botanical fame.  Working outside the Hollywood system, the film isn’t required to give the hero an easy, happy out, and it doesn’t.  Wicked but not at all crass, Little Shop is a fascinating look at how seedy topics could be handled with wit and grace in a more innocent age.

Notoriously cheap Corman never wasted the fifty bucks required to renew the copyrights on his quickie features, so like most of his 1960s work, Little Shop of Horrors fell into the public domain.  It can be watched or downloaded from the Internet Archive.  Today, DVDs are sold with Jack Nicholson’s name and face taking up the majority of space on the box cover, even though he’s only in the film for about two minutes (his name appears fourteenth out of the fifteen actors’ names in the opening credits).  Corman and Griffith tried to repeat the formula of Horrors the very next year with The Creature from the Haunted Sea, another whirlwind horror/comedy packed with quirky characters.  The abysmal failure of Haunted Sea demonstrates just how much luck was involved in the success of Little Shop; everyone involved just happened to be clicking on all cylinders the week they made it.  Frank Oz‘ 1986 musical remake, while very different in style, is also offbeat and worth a look.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

There is a genuinely bizarre sense of humour to the film… [it] has a silliness that verges on surrealism…”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

One thought on “CAPSULE: THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960)”

  1. God I haven’t seen this in ages, though the remake is one of my favorite musicals (especially the stage version). I mainly remember being impressed with what Corman could do with so little time/money, but I guess that was his specialty! I’m actually a bigger fan of 1959’s beat parody A BUCKET OF BLOOD, whose script Griffith re-hashed for this one.

    You review makes me want to see LITTLE SHOP again though!

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