This movie was a blind streaming pick on a Sunday night; I had no idea what to expect, but a horror sci-fi comedy musical about a sentient bloodthirsty plant from outer space probably wouldn’t have been my first guess. It turned out to be a wacky, campy, satirical and at times even touching delight.
The names of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman in the opening credits were the first clue that I was about to watch a musical, since these two gentlemen were responsible for some of the best-loved songs from the 90s Disney classics like The Little Mermaid. This film, directed by Frank Oz, is the 1986 adaptation of their off-Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn was based on a cult 1960 B-movie.
It tells the story of a shy downtrodden nerd called Seymour (Rick Moranis), who lives and works at downtown Mushnik’s Flower Shop and has a secret crush on Audrey (Ellen Greene), the blond, scatterbrained, helium-voiced salesclerk. The business is not exactly blooming and their crotchety boss is about to close the store for good, but their lives are transformed by an unusual plant bought by Seymour from a Chinese flower place during a solar eclipse. Suddenly, everyone and their dog wants to have a look at this exotic marvel and the shop is overrun with customers. There’s just one small catch Seymour keeps to himself: the evil weed thrives and grows on one kind of food only, fresh human blood.
Nicknamed Audrey II by Seymour, “the mean green mother from outer space” is the undisputed star of the movie, a technical wonder of old-school animatronics that still impresses today, with tentacles and tendrils that look amazingly fluid. When first introduced, Audrey II is about the size of a Venus flytrap, but soon it grows so big it’s no longer satisfied with the daily drips of blood from Seymour’s cut fingers. It makes Seymour an offer he cannot refuse (yep Audrey II talks and sings, with the voice of Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs): fame, fortune, and escape from Skid Row with the woman he loves. All he has to do is serve human Audrey’s nasty abusive boyfriend (Steve Martin) for dinner.
Steve Martin nearly steals the whole show as the sadistic, leather-clad motorcycle-riding dentist; interestingly, the way his dear departed mother dealt with her son’s tendencies made me think back to Dexter. His signature song, a deliciously wicked number called Dentist! would have been the funniest scene in the movie, if it wasn’t upstaged by Bill Murray’s hysterical cameo as an eager and willing patient who seems to enjoy pain and discomfort at the dentist’s just a tad too much.
There’s much to love about the movie: its strange and surreal vibe, fantastic set design, subversive and irreverent lyrics, running commentary from The Supremes-like trio of female singers, and the fact that it wraps up the story in trim and neat 90 minutes like every good comedy should. Though Broadway-meets-Motown is not my personal favourite style of music, all the songs are undeniably well-crafted and catchy. The casting feels perfect all around; Rick Moranis especially makes for a loveable (if far too easily led) protagonist and has a lovely chemistry with Ellen Greene.
I was a bit conflicted about the ending, which didn’t sit quite right with me; it was no surprise to learn that the original stage musical ending was scrapped and re-shot after audiences at preview screenings hated it. In most cases, a happy ending hastily slapped on after a negative audience reaction turns out to be to the movie’s detriment, but to be fair to the filmmakers, the original grim dark ending doesn’t really work for a movie that feels weirdly innocent and sweet despite all the grisly goings-on.