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Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz) 1986


    Little Shop of Horrors, an adaptation of the early Ď80s Off-Broadway musical hit inspired by a 1960 Roger Corman-directed, Jack Nicholson-starring B-movie of the same name, was one of my favorite films when I was a kid. Itís so filled with campy energy and disparate elements that I half expected when rewatching it to find it worse than I remembered, or at least something that I would have to chalk up as a guilty, nostalgic pleasure. To my delightful surprise, my critical response hasnít shifted that much in the last fifteen years or so. It probably elicits that same reaction precisely because the film relies on our willingness to indulge our tastes for guilty pleasures and nostalgia. Though the direction is not the most inspired imaginable considering the wonderfully silly subject matter (a flesh-eating plant is a central character), Frank Oz moves things along briskly enough that you canít for a moment grow bored and his tone denies any questioning of plausibility, whether practical or emotional. The movieís only a 94 minutes long, but includes over a dozen songs (written by the sorely missed Howard Ashman and Alan Menken), most of which serve to advance the plot. The ones that donít surprisingly provide interior monologues for the 2-D, but entertaining, characters, and establish a disarming romantic side that sticks with you. The filmís dopey sentimentalism works precisely because the movie is such a self-aware pastiche of genres past that itís practically a required element.


    It doesnít hurt much that the performers are more than game for this material. Though Ric Moranis as Seymour, the straight-man nebbish botanist hero, is definitely better than average, the supporting cast provides the most memorable moments of the film. Ellen Greene is hilariously chirpy as the wistful girl next door that catches Seymourís eye. She fluffs her clichťd role up to the point that it transcends kitsch and finds something genuine. A trio of doo-wop singers provides a catchy Greek chorus. Steve Martin has perhaps the best role of all, though, in whatís really an extended cameo. He plays the most sadistic of movie dentists here, and the macho posturing in his body language is absolutely priceless (he kick starts his dental chair like itís a motorcycle). Introduced at the precise moment when the film might start to feel a bit one-note, he reinvigorates the picture. A scene in which a sado-masochistic patient (Bill Murray) finds his way into his dental chair is one of the funniest scenes in all Ď80s comedies, with two comic geniuses at the top of their form. Special mention must also go to Audrey II, the boisterous, singing plant that the plot revolves around. The special effects used to make this puppet come alive are utterly convincing, in their cartoon-like way, and I canít think of a CGI-created character thatís surpassed it in invention or character (surely some of the credit must go to Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, who provided its voice). Every element in Little Shop of Horrors works nearly as successfully as the plant does, though. The film represents a rare example where Hollywood has applied itself rigorously to material that might somehow seem beneath it with wholly satisfying results.


* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman