Movie musicals are going through a tough time.
Over the past few years the biggest examples of the increasingly rare form have tried to find the key to a modern musical by rebelling against it in one way or another. Tom Hooper’s typically visually tone-deaf Les Miserables in 2012 hoped that pasting cinema’s strengths – not least the power of the intense close-up – over musical material would make for something more interesting than the muddle that resulted. Then 2014’s The Last Five Years simply created the feel of a romantic comedy and tried to slot the musical sequences in seamlessly. Neither option ushered in the hoped-for musical renaissance.
Not that they will be the last to try. Maybe the next attempt to unlock the musical market will succeed with more modern material like Hamilton. The trick is in how it is handled though, so even that super-hit won’t be guaranteed success in cinemas. This week’s Blu-Ray and DVD release of Little Shop of Horrors shows as much, with some surprising collaborators proving that tone is key to this kind of film.
As an 80s film adaptation of a stage musical based on a Roger Corman movie from 1960, that Little Shop of Horrors ever felt fresh is surprising. For it to still feel that way 30 years on is basically incredible.
Fusing together a host of unlikely fragments – doo wop music, Saturday Night Live calibre comedians, and remarkable practical effects from puppet master and director Frank Oz, the film’s ambition outstrips any modern counterpart and somehow leads to something fully formed and natural.
Ultimately a love story between over-actors Seymour (Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene), with a bloodthirsty plant providing the speedbumps on the road to their happiness, the film is mostly an excuse to bombard audiences with (light hearted) thrills as visceral as they are unusual.
That means genuinely funny lines and characters like Steve Martin’s maniacal dentist, and if not scary sequences with the plant then at least awe-inspiring effects with it. The giant puppet’s creepily quick movements and words – only made possible doubling the speed of the footage – are sublimely uncanny.
Not that original effects work would make for a classic if the music couldn’t back it up. Again, tone is everything, as the songs’ delivery, presentation, and writing all sync up to create something unusual, charming and often hilarious. Ellen Greene belting out showstoppers in a completely different voice to her spoken shriek; the menacing energy of Audrey II’s numbers; merging spoken word Rick Moranis verses with doo wop chorus girls; all the film does is build on the material already within the songs.
Famously, Little Shop of Horrors’ story was somewhat compromised by having the ending extensively re-shot after extreme negative reactions to the grim original. But once more the film shows that its off-kilter mash-up charms are the key to its success, with the hastily altered ending only enhancing its tone.
Even with studio interference in its story, Little Shop of Horrors is a one-off exercise in true originality. Now that Hollywood is letting so many mid-level films die off, it looks less and less like an experiment anyone is about to repeat. While closing off many traditional routes to this kind of film, smaller scale productions do leave the door open for a wildly ambitious independent to make something odd and angular. That is the beacon of hope this film offers in its 30th year: if the right Frank Oz style oddball is out there, maybe movie musicals aren’t quite dead yet.
Dir: Frank Oz
Scr: Howard Ashman
Cast: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, James Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, Levi Stubbs
Prd: David Geffen
DOP: Robert Paynter
Music: Miles Goodman
Runtime: 103 minutes
Little Shop of Horrors is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now