Movies for the Resistance: Little Shop of Horrors

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, John Candy and the voice of Levi Stubbs 
Directed by: Frank Oz
Running time: 94 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 1986

 

Little Shop of Horrors is pure camp first and foremost: re-envisioning a truly terrible Roger Corman quickie as a calculated act of ridiculousness. Outlandish costumes, exaggerated emotions, broad characters and some fantastic musical numbers (courtesy of the late Howard Ashman and his longtime partner Alan Menken) simultaneously upend and celebrate the conventions of 1950s monster movies… filtered through the lens of a truly ignominious example.

But Ashman and Menken had more on their mind than just a silly little horror-comedy, and the subtle, ingenious way they expressed it has helped give Little Shop of Horrors a surprising amount of longevity. The original stage musical has never fallen out of fashion (a UK tour took place just last year), and the movie direct by Frank Oz has become something of an evergreen… in part because of its pointed critique of the rat race and capitalism in general. Its outlandishness hides barbs that grow more potent with every screening.

Trump’s White House exists in part as a primal shriek of late-era capitalism: deregulating business, opening the environment for development and reducing every national part and untouched wetlands to an exploitable price tag. Anyone trying to earn a living these days can speak to the toxic payoff of that folly, and we’ll all have to live with the fallout a lot sooner than too many of us think. Yet we keep running on the gerbil wheel faster and faster, hoping vainly that the Protestant work ethic can lead us to that long-promised comfort and prosperity.

Little Shop of Horrors takes subversive delight in destroying every facet of that myth: starting with the notion of the little guy with the big idea who rockets to fame and fortune. Certainly, Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) makes a suitably hapless working stiff. Caught in a dead-end job, subject to an abusive boss, trapped on the wrong side of the tracks with no hope of advancement, he’s eager for anything to change the game. That hits us in the very first act with one of the film’s best songs, “Skid Row,” in which Seymour and his would-be paramour Audrey (Ellen Greene, reprising her role from the original off-Broadway production) bemoan their status along with their fellow discards.

Salvation appears in the form of Audrey II, a “strange and interesting new plant” that doesn’t do anything useful but engenders an endless fascination from anyone who catches sight of it. Also, it feeds on blood, which should be a big red flag. But Seymour’s desperate and the price doesn’t seem so high. A few drops here, a few drops there. No one gets hurt, right? After all, business starts looking up with Audrey II in the window, and doesn’t that beat the abject poverty he was living in before? He’s caught the tail of the fabled American Dream, and will happily ride it straight out of his scuzzy neighborhood into something better. (Audrey I best expresses those dreams: empty, materialistic suburban bliss defined by slick magazine ads and consisting largely of a house full of stuff.)

Of course, neither of them get a chance to enjoy any of that promised success, since their boss Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) sucks up the profits while constantly deferring any of the big rewards Seymour is entitled to. He works harder and harder, and the money keeps rolling in… but he’s always left empty-handed when the time comes to pass out the goodies.

Yet he keeps buying into the system in the hope of future rewards, even when the plant’s demands advance to the actively murderous. Seymour built a better mousetrap (or at least found one in the middle of an unexpected eclipse) only to give up mor4e and more to keep the gravy train rolling. The plant greases the skids nicely with promises of wealth and riches, of course, and even provides a perfectly nasty competitor (Steven Martin’s hysterically sadistic dentist) who richly deserves the be turned into mulch.

So it goes, deeper and deeper, as Seymour keeps obeying the plant’s dictates in return for increasingly empty promises. By the time he realizes that no reward is coming, it’s far too late. The monster he helped create is out of control and no longer willing to take “no” for an answer.

Audrey II’s hustle makes for a lesson in basic con artistry: get paid up front, pump the other guy full of empty promises, and cut him loose the instant you have the leverage. It’s the precise snow job that Trump practiced his entire life, which worked on the bare minimum of voters to put him in the White House. He and his cronies are reaping the rewards. The rest of us get the shaft: including (and especially) the voters who bought into his horseshit in the first place.

It may be Audrey II’s inherent ridiculousness that binds it most closely to Trump and his way of doing things. Certainly, few cinematic monsters feel as appropriate as this one. The threat is a joke: a silly little plant that no one quite takes seriously… until it literally grows big enough to swallow the nation whole. Even then, it seems too surreal for words. We keep looking for the punchline: the moment Monty Hall or Andy Kaufman come out from behind the curtain and tell us it’s all been some colossal gag. Meanwhile, the silly plant laughs and distracts and chews up another hapless cast member. (I confess that the plant is probably smarter, however.)

We could have stopped it before now, but we didn’t. Why? Because we still bought into the rigged game it played. We still assumed that the shiny baubles it offered had a reasonable chance of being delivered. That façade eventually shatters into a million pieces and yet people still cling to it rather than face the truth. (It hits our dignity as much as anything else: “THIS is how the world ends?!”)

Oz originally had to shoot a new ending for the film’s theatrical release: exchanging the sight of Audrey II’s spawn running amuck for a happily ever after in Seymour and Audrey I’s suburban Shangri La. The original ending was restored for the Blu-ray, which lets you watch either one as preferred. It makes for a strange variation on Schrodinger’s cat: existing simultaneously alongside each other, neither quite superior enough to discard the other.

The downbeat ending feels more in keeping with the film’s overall tone, as Seymour succumbs to his Faustian bargain and the world pays the price. And the sight of giant Venus flytraps rampaging through New York – while the Greek chorus sings “Don’t Feed the Plants” – feels right at home in our current political environment… where no sacred cow is above trampling for a fast buck and we’re seemingly helpless to bring the whole sick show to a halt. The visual effects are fantastic, the implications chilling, and the song equal to the rest of the fantastic soundtrack.

But truth be told, I prefer the happy ending. They’re in short supply these days, and need to be cherished. There’s a lot of Seymour Krelborns still out there, still searching for their shot. We can do better by them. A lot better.

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