Blu-Ray Review: Little Shop of Horrors – The Directors’s Cut
On the twenty-third day of the month of September,
In an early year of a decade not too long before our own,
The human race suddenly encountered, a deadly threat to its very existence.
And this terrifying enemy surfaced,
As such enemies often do,
In the seemingly most innocent, and unlikely, of places.
This October, there were numerous titles on the lips of many people regarding Blu-Ray discs. These included E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Prometheus, But for myself and many others, there was one release that just trumped them all as a must-have: Little Shop of Horrors – The Directors’s Cut.
Before they found worldwide acclaim in helping with Disney’s second animation renaissance, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken had their first major success off-Broadway in 1982, when they adapted the Roger Corman film Little Shop of Horrors into a stage production. Producer David Geffen then set out to make a film of the production, and landed Frank Oz to direct. At the time, Frank was known for working with Jim Henson as a puppeteer, and later as co-director on The Dark Crystal and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Little Shop would be Frank’s first solo directorial outing, but in a way, the film’s semi-crazy premise involving a blood thirsty, world-dominating plant seemed just the thing as he started to make his way as a film director.
As well, Frank wasn’t that far from some of his Henson collaborators. Though the film does not credit Jim Henson’s Creature Shop for the Audrey II plant effects, Frank borrowed many craftsmen and puppeteers to pull off everything from the cable-controlled ‘baby’ plant, to the enormous one-ton monstrosity at the end of the film that took 60 puppeteers to operate.
Little Shop of Horrors is a production that is one of those strange ‘concoctions’ of a film. It’s a 50’s B-movie with its blood-thirsty plant, a 60’s period piece with a Greek chorus of girls in the vein of The Supremes, and to wrap it up, connections to the German story of Faust.
The film’s screenplay, written by the stage production’s bookwriter/lyricist Howard Ashman, retains much of that production vibe, but it definitely feels that Howard knew that what worked on an open stage, was going to need some tweaking with moving cameras and multiple sets.
I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen a stage production of Little Shop, so I won’t be firing off a comparison list on what the film hits and misses…with the exception of one little thing that this Blu-Ray release brings to light.
The Director’s Cut
To many who have never seen a production of Little Shop, or read up on the history of the material, the ending that was in the original 1986 release, was not ‘true’ to the original production, or the intended ending. Much like the story of Faust, Seymour’s ‘deal with the devil’ (aka the plant, Audrey II) would not only take the life of an innocent girl, but his own life as well.
Test audiences loved the film, until the very end when the boy and girl they were so focused on, ended up as plant food. The final test-audience scores didn’t even merit the possibility of a release, so the final ending in which Seymour electrocutes the plant to death was created. Seymour mans up, gets Audrey, and the two live happily ever after (even though he’s responsible for feeding Orin Scrivello and Mr Mushnik to the plant).
Many wondered about the original ending for years, which also included a big B-movie extravaganza in which the the plants take over the world ‘Godzilla-style.’ Still-images were shown in special effects magazines like Cinefex, but noone ever expected the lost ending to resurface.
Then, in 1998, Warner Brothers decided to release the film on DVD. When they contacted Frank Oz if he had any parts of the original ending, he produced a copy of the black-and-white test-screening footage, which ended up being put on the DVD as an extra. However, David Geffen requested WB pull the remaining copies off the shelves asap, and replacements were made minus the test footage. Rumor was that Geffen either didn’t want to acknowledge the original ending, or that he had the color negatives WB wanted, and wanted to release a true director’s cut at some point.
The original cut of Little Shop was seen as the holy grail among some film viewers over the years. Of the discs that were purchased before the recall, some made their way onto eBay, and fetched upwards of $200. In recent years, the footage even ended up on several people’s Youtube accounts.
Some have said the ‘plants-taking-over’ ending doesn’t quite work, but if you’ve seen some of the stuff that Frank Oz did with Jim Henson, it does work in its strange way. Plus, the Director’s Cut can finally show the impressive model-work that was often seen in still photographs. Millions of dollars were spent to build the miniature landscapes and detailed vehicles that were eventually destroyed in the onslaught.
This new cut of the film was made after searching all of the Warner Brothers vaults for color material. Finding almost every single piece of footage, it put to rest the rumor that Geffen was the only one who had the color negatives.
The Director’s Cut does follow the original test-screening cut to the ‘T,’ but it also feels that if that original ending had been used, they would have spent the final months before the big release, making the monster-movie ending a little ‘tighter’ in places. It almost feels like disaster-porn, given how after awhile, we get lots and lots of images of building walls blowing out, and being crushed into powder.
One side-effect to putting this ending together, is that a new audio track had to be mixed for the ending, which was mainly music and dialogue with no sound effects. The added sound effects work pretty well, and in some scenes, help sell the violence of the actions in some scenes.
Some have voiced some displeasure that in the scene where Seymour meets his fate within the gaping jaws of Audrey II, that he appears to be screaming, but we hear no sound. I find the scene plays well with just the music, kind of like we’re inside Seymour’s own personal hell as he meets his demise.
One item that has been dubbed in in later scenes, are the rampaging plant’s laughter. It doesn’t quite sound like Levi Stubbs (who voiced Audrey II), but unless that’s one of your pet peeves, it’s rather unnoticeable to the common person.
My Thoughts on The Film(s)
One of the great things that Warner Brothers has done, is issue the Blu-Ray with both the theatrical and director’s cuts. I find this a great bargain, as some may prefer one cut over the other, or some may choose to go back-and-forth, analyzing how each of them differ in tone.
When considering both cuts, it’s like coming to a fork in the road. There’s one school of thought that these poor kids (Seymour and Audrey) are trapped in a place they’ll never escape from, and the audience wants them to succeed. Such downtrodden, meek individuals can often win over an audience, who wants them to reach their dreams. As well, Audrey’s dream sequence shows the dreams of a sweet girl who wants a happy and better place.
On the other hand, one thing that can probably cloud the judgement of the audience, is regarding the death of Orin, the masochistic dentist. Even though some can believe him to be a monster that deserved to die, Seymour commits a terrible sin by killing him, thus starting off the series of chain reactions that leads to bigger things, but leaves him with unnerving feelings of guilt for what he’s done. As well, Seymour is in danger of losing everything when Mr Mushnik the flower shop owner finds out what he’s done. However, Seymour can’t bring himself to lose his chance with Audrey, and gets Mushnik eaten as well.
After having seen both cuts, it’s hard to go back to the theatrical cut once I saw the original. To me, I prefer the heart-break as Audrey dies in Seymour’s arms, and is then consumed by the plant. I was surprised when watching the scene where Seymour presents her body to the plant, I started to get emotional. There’s a little moment where as she slides into the plant’s mouth, we see her hand just brush the outer lip of the plant. Seymour attempts to reach for it, to touch his beloved one last time, but it slides past the plant’s lips, and she’s gone forever.
I also like the rather dark humor of the director’s cut ending, where we see that miniature Audrey II’s have been grown and placed on store shelves across the country, with the masses of people clamoring for their own. It put me in mind of the mad dash in the last 30 years for things like Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle-Me Elmo’s, and Beanie Babies. Though at least those toys weren’t bent on consuming human blood to grow for world conquest.
While I don’t outright hate the theatrical cut, I’ll be fine with the director’s cut from now on. The 1980’s had some films in which early testing changed a film’s darker tone (like Terry GIlliam’s Brazil). The atmosphere of filmmaking feels a little like today and some studios. The only difference is that in today’s audience, there’s the push to edit out blood and gore to make a film more ‘profitable’ by pushing it into PG-13 territory.
There isn’t that much new in the way of special features, unless you count the Director’s Cut as one of them. With the exception of a re-edited feature and a small retrospective, it’s almost all been seen before.
-Digibook Packaging (Blu-Ray only) – Several of Warner Brothers’ Blu-Ray titles have been released in this format, with the disc encased in a small book. Each book contains pictures and information about the film. There’s also a small insert containing a personal message from Frank Oz. Unlike the Digibook releases I got for Dr Strangelove and The Matrix, the design work on this release is a little higher in quality. Images intermingled with the text are of a glossy nature. The text on the pages covers a little on the making of the film, the original ending, quotes and dialogue from the film. A very nice cornucopia of information.
-Original Theatrical Commentary by Frank Oz – Recorded for the 1998 DVD release of the theatrical cut, Frank does a solo commentary, explaining some of his filming decisions, camera set-ups, and even some little things that peeve him. Notable is how certain sets and even actor’s movements were often dependent on musical beats, and how many there would be in a scene.
-Frank Oz and Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut – This is the only new special featurette included. Frank lays out for the viewer, the whole sad story of what brought the original film to be cut into its final form. We even get some interview snippets from Richard Conway, who was responsible for much of the model work that went into the excised ending.
-A Story of Little Shop of Horrors – This segment, originally made around the time of the film’s release, gives a 23-minute summary of the evolution from Roger Corman B-movie, to Off-Broadway hit, to big-screen return. We get candid snippets from the cast, producer David Geffen, and director Frank Oz. Also, we get to see the creation of the sets and Audrey II, as well as some scenes of the crew operating the puppets, which are a plus in my book. What’s a little sad, is that even though it is a musical, we don’t get any clips of Howard Ashman, or Alan Menken talking about developing the Off-Broadway production, or even Howard talking about translating the production to the big screen.
Outtakes and Deleted Scenes – These are more like a goulash of scenes. We see flubbed lines, crew members posing with the three singing girls, and numerous effects shots being staged or filmed. There’s even a couple cheeky shots in there as well. There was even supposed to be a dream sequence for the song The Meek Shall Inherit, and we see a few seconds of the crew dancing through the smoky atmosphere. There’s also a funny scene where we see two enormous Audrey II’s terrorizing New York, and off to the side, an enormous human hand sprinkling dust and debris down. The scenes also have a commentary track with Frank Oz giving his thoughts.
-Director’s Cut Ending with Commentary by Frank Oz – The audio’s (kinda) the same, but the image isn’t. This was the audio commentary that Frank recorded in 1998 for the DVD release, where he discussed the original ending, over the black-and-white footage he provided for the DVD release. Back then, the track that was used was temporary audio with just basic vocals and some music. It may sound odd when Frank begins saying things like ‘we would have music here,’ and ‘there would be plenty of sound effects there,’ and you can faintly hear them from the newly-revised ending.
– Movie Trailers – We get to see both the Teaser and Theatrical trailers. The Teaser trailer attempts to look like a B-movie, with some key words flying at the audience.
You’re never going to please everybody. They couldn’t do it back in 1986, and even with this set, they won’t be able to please those who have waited over 25 years for this release.
I think some would have loved a retrospective with the cast and crew, or even a feature discussing the late Howard Ashman. Howard has been mentioned by name in many of the making-of specials I have from Disney (such as Waking Sleeping Beauty), but Little Shop was one of the first big commercial successes he had before he was eventually brought into The Walt Disney Company.
Even so, for those of us who have never owned the film, or had the copy with the black-and-white ending, it is definitely worth it to me.
In the last few months, I’ve been going around the internet just looking for information about Little Shop of Horrors, and I thought I’d include a few links here:
HowardAshman.com – Maintained by his sister Sarah, if you were ever curious to know more about Howard Ashman, this is the place.
Mondo Musicals – The owner of this web blog, has been a huge fan of Little Shop of Horrors for quite some time. If you search his page, you’ll find plenty of articles, ranging from analyzing the Roger Corman film, to pictures of some original props he obtained from a puppeteer who worked on the film!
Director’s Cut of the film – B+
Theatrical Cut of the film – B
The Blu-Ray package (with both film versions, digibook packaging, and special features) – B+