by Robert Ham
"I shot Little Shop of Horrors in two days and a night for about $30,000, and the picture has lasted all these years. It's still playing. Warner Brothers remade it for $25 million on a long schedule and of course a big budget. The picture came and went and is forgotten, The Warner Brothers $25 million picture which was made maybe seven or eight years ago is history and is never referred to. My two-day picture, which was made maybe 35 years ago, is still playing. And I think one of the reasons is the Warner Brothers picture was obviously a bigger, better-looking picture, but it didn't have the youthful verve and excitement of the original, and frankly, it wasn't as funny."
That's Roger Corman as interviewed by MJ Simpson, staff writer for SFX Magazine, back in 1995. Nearly 20 years later, his comments still hold true. Sure there are some who hold the 1986 film version in high regard - particularly those who are still clamoring for a DVD re-release (apparently planned for October of this year), and, to be fair to the filmmakers, the musical take on Horrors did pull a profit -- just over $13 million, according to Wikipedia.
But although Corman was poking a bit at the Frank Oz version, he gets at the heart of something that has consistently surprised me in the years since I've seen the original film. The concept that Corman and
To be fair, we have to credit Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the two gents behind the musical version of the film back in the early '80s. Their genius move has paid dividends over and over again - through a long running off Broadway production back in 1982, through the film adaptation, and then a Broadway run capped off by a touring production in the early '00s. It's a fun little spectacle with puppets and catchy '50s/'60s-styled tunes, rendered even more so by a Hollywood budget and performances by Ellen Greene and Rick Moranis.
But each of those variations, as Corman says, doesn't have the "verve and excitement" of the low-budget black comedy that has its 52nd birthday this year. For modern movie fans, it's a delightfully silly and quaint throwback to a heyday of the B-movie, and a testament to the savvy of that genre's king: Roger Corman. I mean, it only took two days and one night to film that whole thing? That alone deserves oodles of credit.
I think, though, that what has helped the longevity of the original film was the fact that Corman let the film fall into the public domain. This meant that any cable or network TV channel that needed to fill some space late at night could plug the gap with this film and not have to pay any money for it. And it meant that there's dozens of cheaply-made and inexpensive-to-obtain VHS and DVD copies out there. It persists because it is readily available.
That is, of course, only part of the equation. People like myself keep returning to the film because it is a masterpiece of narrative economy. Like most of Corman's best work, it sticks to one simple plot device then teases it out for 70 minutes towards a dynamic conclusion.
There are no shades of meaning to be read into this work (though I'm sure some have tried). It's all on the surface and easy to consume along with your popcorn. It doesn't appeal to some wish-fulfillment in viewers. It's salty, fat-filled snack food in movie form.
And for a young viewer (again, like myself), the broad comedy is a delight. Because when this film is mentioned outside of the circles of film nerds and scholars, the focus is on things like Dick Miller eating the plants he buys from Mr. Mushnick's shop, and, of course, the appearance of a young Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient.
Thinking on it more, the film will not be denied because it crosses so many genre boundaries. Fans of horror, sci-fi, romance, comedy, monster movies, chamber dramas...all of that is wrapped up in one kooky little flick. If that's not a recipe for success, I don't know what is. Now, do yourself a favor and feed yourself this unburnished gem from the annals of cinema history.