Feed me, Judge Joel Pearce.
"I ain't been to college, and I ain't been around much, but I would have bet there's no such thing as a talking plant."—Seymour
Although I've been a longtime fan of the 1986 musical version of Little Shop of Horrors, this is the first time I've ever seen the original. It is, of course, not a great film. That said, it holds an important place in the history of cheapie horror. I'm glad I waited for this edition, though, because it's far better than this film deserves.
Facts of the Case
Ah, and now it's time for the horror movie plot synopsis.
In a little flower shop on skid row, a young floral worker named Seymour (Jonathan Haze, The Terror) messes with some plants and comes up with a venus fly trap hybrid that talks and eats human flesh.
But there's good news, too. The plant—named Audrey Jr. after Seymour's attractive co-worker (Jackie Joseph, Gremlins)—brings lots of business to the small, run down flower shop. This impresses Seymour's grumpy boss Gravis Mushnik (Mel Welles, The Undead), who encourages the growth of this strange plant until he finds out what it's been eating.
By this point, though, things have already spun far out of control. People have died, and detectives are investigating. Oh, and it does indeed feature Jack Nicholson in a quick five minute role (from the packaging, you would expect him to be playing the plant or something).
The original The Little Shop of Horrors is legendary, since it was shot in two days on the back corner of a studio lot, and features Jack Nicholson in one of his earliest film appearances.
Ultimately, the film does live up to expectations, considering its budget and filming conditions. That is to say, it's a dreadful film, but nonetheless manages to be both entertaining and fascinating. The acting is hammy, the story is goofy, nothing in it is scary and we laugh at all the wrong moments. In other words, it's a blast for fans of old, low-budget horror flicks.
My biggest problem? I watched it alone. This is a movie made for late night parties, when everyone has already reached that hour when even the silliest things are gut-bustingly funny. I suspect that's how most of the film's fans came to it in the first place, and it's certainly how I wish I'd seen it for the first time. It's not a great movie to watch alone on a weeknight, but we reviewers have deadlines. As I watched it this way, I found myself pretty unimpressed overall. It's neither funny nor scary, a bad situation for a horror-comedy.
Of course, from all of the hype and cover images that I've seen, I had always assumed that Nicholson stars in the film. If only it were true. Unfortunately, it is Jonathan Haze who takes on the role of Seymour, and the results are not good at all. The ten minute scene with Nicholson as the pain-loving dental patient are a riot, surrounded by an hour of bland situations, cheesy dialogue, and over-the-top emoting. Few characters deserve special mention here, except for the painfully bad delivery of Myrtle Vail as Seymour's mother. Beyond that, I found the movie mostly just turgid and silly.
Of course, I suspect that watching The Little Shop of Horrors would be much more fun with the right company. Undoubtedly, Mike Nelson fits that category, and his commentary track went a long way in capturing the film's unique charm. He mercilessly mocks the film, which makes the whole affair quite a bit more amusing and keeps the slow sections rolling along. Of course, this commentary track isn't quite as good as finding an actual friend to watch it with, but I suppose some people need to just do the best they can.
Most of you have already seen the film, and if you are reading this review, your main interest is in whether it's worth plunking money down to replace one of the 25 public domain releases the film has already had on DVD. Though I've only ever seen short clips of the film before this, I can't imagine any of the cheapie releases even come close to matching the quality of this disc. The picture was remastered directly from original 35mm elements, and it looks fantastic. The black and white version has sharp lines, as well as spectacular contrast and detail. It won't be mistaken for a recent blockbuster, but I seriously doubt it has ever looked this good. The sound is solid, too, for a 45 year old cheapie. The dialogue and music have been restored as well as they ever will be.
There is also a colorized version on the disc. I'm not going to make any statements here about the ethics of colorization, but I'm glad that we were given the choice. The color itself is gaudy and fake, just like the film itself. In all, it's not a bad way to watch the movie. I mean, we're not talking about Kurosawa here.
While the commentary is the main attraction in terms of extras, there is also a gallery of plants that eat meat, as well as a short clip aptly titled "Man Eating Plants."
If you consider yourself a scholar of great cinema, and have no time for base and silly films, you may want to steer clear of The Little Shop of Horrors. When it comes right down to it, though, the history of film isn't just about artistry and vision. It's also about the visceral experience, whether that's the rush of a classic swashbuckler, the sheer spectacle of an epic, or the laughter shared with friends at a midnight showing of a cheaply made horror flick. If you want to share that experience with some friends, I warmly recommend Legend Films' new edition of The Little Shop of Horrors.
It's guilty, but hell…it's too late to do anything about it now.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
• Mike Nelson Commentary
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