Saturday, January 31, 2009

Little Shop of Horrors is really good



I didn't watch Little Shop of Horrors when it was in theaters because as a child, I avoided scary movies, and "horrors" in the title said to me the movie would be scary. I missed out, not that I would have appreciated the movie as a 10-year-old anyway. I wish LSoH would return to theaters with the original apocalyptic ending. If they had stayed with the original ending, instead of the test-audience-inspired ending used for the popular release, the movie would have been a cult classic. The story is meant to be a tragedy and perhaps cautionary tale, not a comedy with a feel-good ending.

Just as entertainment, LSoH is an excellent musical film with terrific songs and performances and the use of camerawork to orchestrate scenes in a way that couldn't be duplicated on stage.

The movie also works as incisive social commentary and a sensitive critique of human nature. The main message is basically summed up with "The path to hell is paved with good intentions". Ordinary people, even decent likeable people who deserve better, can bring about disaster by compromising with temptation. In the movie, Audrey II begins helpless and dependent, and grows by progressively manipulating Seymour into increasingly awful acts to feed it. Audrey II makes him uneasy, starting with its strange appearance in front of Chang's shop, but Seymour doesn't question his good fortune. Its feeding demands are first victimless, if unhealthy for Seymour, then escalate to a bad guy (the abusive Orin Scrivello DDS, well played by Steve Martin), then Mr. Mushnick, then innocent Audrey and finally Seymour himself (in the original story) when he belatedly tries to stop a now-powerful Audrey II. In exchange, Audrey II fulfills Seymour's desires until he, literally, is consumed by the monster, Seymour's greed embodied, that proceeds to wreck the world.

In the moral tale, Seymour was not tricked and could have stopped Audrey II at any point before it was too late, but instead chose to delude himself because the benefits were too great and the alternative was to accept a lonely, hopeless existence. As Seymour declared fatefully in the opening act, "Down on skid row . . . I would do anything to get out of here".

If faced with choosing between a pathetic life whose only expectation is an anonymous death or a glorious life whose cost may be mass destruction, which would you choose to sacrifice, your life or the world? The noble answer is obvious, but the honest answer is not. The moral of the fable rings true today with the incredible stories of corruption and greed behind the financial meltdown. The metaphor might also be applied to the welfare state, which has a hand in the financial meltdown. We're very good at rationalizing self-benefiting choices that could be harmful to others.

Teen actresses Tisha Campbell (Chiffon), Tichina Arnold (Crystal), and Michelle Weeks (Ronette) impressed as the ever-present greek chorus with their intricate song and dance numbers which they performed with terrific energy. As part of the background, they shaped Little Shop of Horrors as much as John Williams's score shaped Star Wars.

These outtakes and making-of featurette are interesting, though the latter is missing talk about the original ending, Levi Stubbs, and Vincent Gardenia.

Update: A Director's Cut of Little Shop of Horrors with its originally intended ending was released in Blu-Ray format in October 2012. The Q&A accompanying the release at the New York Film Festival. I'm of mixed mind about the 2 endings. There are pros and cons for both. Seymour and Audrey are sympathetic and likeable enough that on my 1st viewing, I prefer the happy ending. "Suddenly Seymour" is iconic. I want that scene to be their triumphant breakthrough. But for subsequent viewings, as I get past the underdog hero and love story and think about the deeper message of the movie, the originally intended dark ending fits better. The theater-release ending becomes jarringly out of sync with the cautionary desire-based theme of the story. After listening to Frank Oz's director's commentary on the 2009 DVD, watching the originally intended ending, and rewatching the happy ending, it's apparent less care was taken with the happy ending. It was unfaithful to the play and slapped together haphazardly for the sake of a profitable theater release rather than for art's sake. Cutting out Audrey's death-scene reprise of "Somewhere That's Green" and the last appearance of the 'Greek Chorus' trio were regrettable losses. However, the originally intended ending, although faithful to the play, tilts too far the other way. It's over-indulgent for art's sake. Upon Audrey's death, the tone of the movie shifts suddenly radically from light, energetic camp to dark, sickly horror. The end-of-the-world montage drags on too long. The shift of narrative from close-up focus on the characters in the cloistered world of Skidrow to the girls' epilogue to the mall scene are fine. But after that, the depiction of worldwide destruction lacking specific focus drags on too long. My suggestions to new viewers are first watch LSoH with the happy ending in order to enjoy the sympathetic, likeable characters, the underdog hero and love story, and songs on their face. Think about the deeper message of the price of desire. Then watch the movie with the originally intended dark ending. My suggestions to the filmmakers are make the scene where Seymour feeds Orin Scrivello to Audrey II to be more grisly in order to jumpstart the transition to the dark, sickly horror ending. While Seymour can continue to be sympathetic, he should be marked as damned before "Suddenly Seymour". The "Suddenly Seymour" scene is too riveting to wait until after it to damn Seymour with Mr. Mushnick's death. The audience should have been told by then that neither Seymour's tarnished success nor Audrey's love can't save him from his doom. Then tighten up the editing of the closing montage.

Eric

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