Though perhaps not as legendary as the lost original 9 ½ hour cut of Erich von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece Greed or other lost footage and films from cinema history, in the years since its 1986 release, the original ending of director Frank Oz’s beloved cult musical Little Shop of Horrors has developed a mythology all of its own. Oz was famously forced to change the original ending of his masterpiece in response to negative reactions from preview audiences, but now, 26 years later, Warner Brothers has given the original Director’s Cut the Blu-Ray release that it deserves.
Little Shop of Horrors began its life as a low-budget dark comedy from director Roger Corman and writer Charles B. Griffith. Released in 1960, the film was famously shot in a mere two days on a paltry budget of $30,000, and featured a pre-fame Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient (his small role in the movie is greatly exaggerated on the covers of home video releases of the film that hope to cash in on his name).
The movie inspired a 1982 Off-Broadway musical from composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman that simultaneously satirized and celebrated its early 1960’s setting and featured some great songs inspired by rock and roll, doo-wop and that early Motown sound. In 1986, the musical was adapted for the screen by director Frank Oz, an underrated filmmaker who is probably more famous for being the voice of Yoda and Miss Piggy than for many of his excellent movies. Filmed on the giant “007 Stage” at Pinewood Studios in England with an all-star cast and a budget of $25 million, it was clear that in the twenty-six years since the first Little Shop of Horrors movie had been made, Roger Corman’s little low-budget farce had gone a long way.
Upon its initial 1986 release, film critic Roger Ebert presciently noted that Frank Oz’s Little Shop was “the kind of movie that cults are made of.” How could it not be? The movie is wildly entertaining and loads of fun, stuffed with wonderful songs and great comic performances, with a tongue-in-cheek tone that runs throughout and keeps the grim proceedings from ever feeling unpleasant.
Rick Moranis (coming off the success of Ghostbusters) is perfectly cast as the shy Seymour Krelborn, who happens upon a “strange and unusual” Venus Flytrap-esque plant (voiced by the bluesy Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops) that launches him and the flower shop where he works into national stardom. He names the plant “Audrey II,” after his love interest, the equally lovable loser and fellow Mushnik’s Flower Shop employee Audrey. Audrey is wonderfully portrayed by Ellen Greene, who originated the role on stage and succeeds in capturing the ditzy yet endearingly sweet-natured quality of her character. Steve Martin (sporting some shockingly dyed-black hair) is hilarious as her sadistic “doctor” boyfriend, and the film features some great cameos by John Candy as a radio DJ and an incredible, scene-stealing Bill Murray as the masochistic dental patient played by Jack Nicholson in the 1960 version.
Back in 1986, if you were a fan of the Off-Broadway musical, there was no way you were going to be disappointed by Oz’s film adaptation… until, that is, you got to the ending, which differs from the Off-Broadway production in a way that left many disappointed.
(WARNING: This section contains spoilers) Little Shop of Horrors is, at its heart, a (satiric) Faustian morality tale about the dangers of compromising your ethics for the pursuit of fame, success, or even love: when Seymour finds out that his immensely popular plant (it has the potential to be bigger than hula-hoops!) happens to be man-eating, he acquiesces to its demands for human flesh and gets sucked into a vortex of killing. In the Off-Broadway musical the film is based on, Seymour ultimately pays for his crimes when Audrey II eats Audrey. Seymour attempts to rescue her but she dies in his arms, and her last request is that she be fed to the plant (ironically fulfilling her dream of being “somewhere that’s green”).
Seymour is then approached by a man who has plans to sell other Audrey II plants all over America. Realizing that the Audrey II is a “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” who had been planning to conquer earth from the very beginning, Seymour attempts to destroy the plant, but is devoured in the process. Audrey II plants are sold all across America and it proves predictably disastrous for the human race. Plants win, humans lose.
Oz’s film originally featured the same ending, and the destruction of Earth by the plants (set to the tune of the song “Finale: Don’t Feed the Plants”) was an impressive special effects sequence that featured giant plants destroying major cities in ways that pay homage to movies like King Kong and War of the Worlds. The sequence reportedly cost $5 million, but it never saw theatrical release.
Test audiences were deeply disturbed when the two leads were killed off, so Frank Oz and the studio gave in and scrapped the original 20 minute ending (including that $5 million climax) and shot new scenes. In the theatrical release, Audrey survives Audrey II’s attack, and Seymour becomes a hero who destroys the evil, man-eating plant. Seymour and Audrey live happily ever after in the suburban home of their dreams, where they presumably go on to raise 2.5 kids, one of whom will inevitably be nicknamed “Beaver.”
Audiences never got to see the original ending Oz intended. In 1998, Warner Brothers released a special edition DVD that included about 23 minutes of unfinished, un-scored, and un-dubbed black and white footage that was part of the original ending. Unfortunately, producer and rights-holder David Geffen was furious with their decision, and it quickly became the first DVD to ever be recalled due to content. Geffen insisted that he had plans to re-release the film in theaters with the original (restored) ending intact. Sadly, that never happened, and in the meantime, the recalled DVD became a sought after collectors’ item, with some copies fetching as much as $150 on eBay (despite featuring a lackluster, un-restored version of the original ending).
Now, thanks to this Director’s Cut Blu-Ray, after years of waiting, fans can finally enjoy the original ending as it was meant to be seen, in color and featuring the proper sound, music and finished special effects. And how does it look? Well, pretty great. The effects are spectacular and now more than ever, as slick yet soulless CGI animation has become the norm, it is refreshing to see New York get destroyed the old-fashioned way: with special effects that rely only on beautifully crafted miniatures and table-top animation. Watching giant Audrey II plants swallow trains and wrap themselves around the statue of liberty is a delight, and more importantly, more in keeping with the dark comedy that Little Shop of Horrors truly is and always has been.
Fortunately, in addition to the Director’s Cut edition, this Blu-Ray release also offers you the option of watching the theatrical version from 1986. As much as I love and appreciate the Director’s Cut, there is something to be said for the test audiences’ initial reaction to Oz’s ending. Seymour and Audrey are endearing characters that the audience develops an emotional connection to, so if you grew up with the theatrical ending, you will probably agree that it’s nice to always have the option of seeing Seymour and Audrey living their dream life together in the suburbs, i.e., somewhere that’s green.
The movie looks and sounds wonderful; it has a fantastic new 1080p transfer with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and a crisp audio soundtrack with a DTS-HD 5.1 mix. Since Little Shop is one of those rare 80’s movies that managed to be bright and colorful without being garish, the film is a joy to watch in HD, where Audrey II looks as good as ever.
The special features include the original teaser and trailer, nine minutes of enjoyable outtakes (with optional commentary by Frank Oz) and a 22 minute behind-the-scenes feature from 1986 that is adorably dated, and offers simple pleasures like the sight of the puppeteers operating Audrey II, and a young Rick Moranis talking about working with Steve Martin for the first time. There is also a brief, insightful introduction to the Director’s Cut with Frank Oz and special effects supervisor Robert, in addition to an optional Frank Oz commentary pulled from the original DVD release and a new optional Oz commentary for the restored 20-minute original ending.
I do wish we could see a few more retrospective special features, especially some involving the cast, although I can understand the difficulty of getting interviews from the likes of the legendary Steve Martin and the retired Rick Moranis. In the end, though there could have been more supplements, I’m pretty satisfied with the special features that we do get, and I have to give very high points for the packaging: the Blu-Ray contains a good-looking 36-page booklet that contains some interesting text and some gorgeous photos.
Overall, I can highly recommend Warner Bros. new Blu-Ray release of Little Shop of Horrors. Little Shop is a justly adored cult classic and a brilliant movie musical, and for years the only valid complaint leveled against it was that its ending strayed too far from its Off-Broadway source material. That error is rectified in this excellent new Blu-Ray, which gives this film classic the presentation it deserves.