Roger Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
When The Little Shop of Horrors begins, everything seems to be fine and normal and sane. We're taken to Los Angeles's skid row, where Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles), a perpetually frustrated man, runs a little flower shop with the help of his employees, Audrey (Jackie Joseph) and the bumbling Seymour (Jonathan Haze). It's all rather routine, until Burson Fouch (Dick Miller) comes in, orders a bouquet, takes out a salt shaker from his pocket, and proceeds to eat the flowers. For the rest of its slim 72 minutes, Little Shop of Horrors doesn't let up in its weirdness, nor does it stop surprising you.
And it really is. That night, Seymour hears his plant gruffly demanding to be fed. Its cries of "Feed me!" send Seymour out on walk by the train tracks as he tries to figure out how to satisfy the bloodthirsty Audrey Jr. Fate intervenes when out of frustration, Seymour throws a rock and accidentally hits a man. Disoriented, the man stumbles in front of an oncoming train and is killed. Freaked out, Seymour attempts to dispose of the body in different places but he is continually scared off, so he takes it to the shop. As he wraps his head around the situation, Audrey Jr. sniffs the body and declares it food. Reluctantly, Seymour feeds the plant the gruesome body parts, unaware that Mushnick sees it through the window.
Before going to the police, Mushnick decides to talk to Seymour first. When he arrives to the shop the next morning, though, the plant has become even more magnificent and business is thriving. Mushnick asks Seymour just what kind of plant Audrey Jr. is, revealing that it is half-Venus flytrap. Because the flytrap only feeds three times in its life and because Seymour believes that Audrey Jr. might not be hungry anymore, Mushnick is seduced by the shop's success and foregoes speaking to the cops. He'll soon realize what a mistake that was...
Little Shop of Horrors is an undeniably black comedy. While it is rooted in tragedy, there are some genuinely funny moments that made me laugh out loud. For instance, when Mushnick confronts Seymour about Audrey Jr., he goes "You wouldn't lie to your father?!" Forgetting that his boss insisted he be called "Dad," Seymour asks incredulously "My father came home?!" "No! Me!" Mushnick replies.
One of the weirder aspects of the film is the random narration. You're never sure when it is going to pop up, and you don't even know who is narrating until 40 minutes in. After the mysterious disappearances of Seymour's first and second victims, Detectives Fink and Stoolie are discussing the cases in Fink's office. With bored voices and absolutely deadpan expressions, the men are caricatures of the typical cop figure that you find in horror or mystery films. They remain as monosyllabic as they can and betray no emotion. Coupled with their dialogue, it makes for a very funny, dark joke. Example:
Fink: "How are the kids?"
Stoolie: "Lost one yesterday."
Fink: "Lost one, eh? How'd that happen?"
Stoolie, as he lights a cigarette: "Playing with matches."
Fink: "Well, those are the breaks."
When the detectives go to Mushnick's shop in the next scene, the narrator is finally revealed to be Det. Fink, who dryly introduces himself to us although we just met him in the previous scene: "My name is Fink, Sgt. Joe Fink. I'm a Fink." If you're up on your vocab, you'll recall that "fink" and "stoolie" mean a snitch or a whistle-blower. We're not supposed to side with the cops here, clearly.
According to Nicholson, "we never did shoot the end of the scene. This movie was pre-lit. You'd go in, plug in the lights, roll the camera, and shoot. We did the take outside the office and went inside the office, plugged in, lit and rolled. Jonathan Haze was up on my chest pulling my teeth out. And in the take, he leaned back and hit the rented dental machinery with the back of his leg and it started to tip over. Roger didn't even call cut. He leapt onto the set, grabbed the tilting machine, and said 'Next set, that's a wrap.'" Nicholson and Corman collaborated a total of six times, four of those times as actor/director, once as actor/producer, and once as writer/director.
After the movie's initial theatrical run, Corman decided that Little Shop probably wouldn't bring in a lot of money, so he didn't copyright it, allowing the movie to fall into the public domain. Because of that, you can watch the whole thing here on YouTube. I haven't seen the musical version, so I can't exactly say what the differences are, which is better, etc. However, I hope that those of you who enjoy the musical will give its original a chance.
If you're interested in seeing more of Corman's films, you can often find them on YouTube. His work is often fun and ridiculous, in the best sense of the word. He is just really extraordinary. Recently, he produced the flick Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda, which has an incredible, hilarious cameo from Conan O'Brien that you can see in full here (warning: graphic). You can also see a wonderful interview between Corman and Conan here. And finally, check out these clips of Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard discussing the director/producer here.
This is my minor contribution to the Here's Jack Blogathon, a celebration of the actor for his birthday. Check out the other entries here.