Cult classics are hard to review, especially if you expected one thing and totally got another. I have vague recollections of seeing the 1986 musical version of Little Shop of Horrors, and I don’t recall enjoying it. I’ve heard great things about the 1960, Roger Corman original, and figured it’d be worth a shot. It’s a film that has its moments of humor, and a unique story, but I just found it odd. I know that’s not a particularly original thing to say about a cult film, but I never knew what to make of the story of a loveable klutz and his man-eating planet.
Seymour (Jonathan Haze) is about to be fired from his position at a flower shop. The only way to keep his job is to make a small, cross-breeded plant grow. The plant, named Audrey Junior after Seymour’s lady-love, does grow but has a problem: it needs human flesh to survive. As Seymour starts to murder people Audrey Junior’s appetite starts to increase.
I think the most succinct way to write this review is: I like the movie, I think. I’ve seen a few Roger Corman movies, including The Masque of the Red Death which I reviewed here awhile back, and I liked them but they didn’t seem to be anything special. Little Shop of Horrors is shot like something that would play on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The closest thing I can compare it to is the 1930s film Reefer Madness in its appearance and execution. While Little Shop is espousing the message that Reefer Madness was, in terms of acting quality and all that’s how it appears. Now I’m sure someone will comment “that’s all intentional” so I’m not saying it’s a complaint. I’m saying that the film plays like a low-budget B-movie or a cheesy 1960s television show with a few main sets and the characters merely waiting around for something to happen. A few time the characters all seem to be waiting for Seymour and then start acting on cue.
The movie does have a fair bit of humor, especially in the SFX work and the sound of the plant. Audrey Junior starts off simply smacking its lips and that’s incredibly funny because of how unexpected it is. The flower shop owner Mr. Mushnick (Mel Welles) calls it a “cold sore on the lips” in terms of its appearance. It’s this mix of macabre SFX and quirky dialogue that makes the movie come off more intentionally bad than you expect. When Audrey Junior starts talking (the infamous “Feed me”) it’s scary because you don’t expect this big booming male voice to come out of nowhere, but it’s also hysterical BECAUSE it’s a big booming male voice coming from this tiny plant.
The characters are all buffoonish in their acting. Jonathan Haze is very shy and loveable as Seymour. The female Audrey (Jackie Joseph) is bland and lifeless, merely loving Seymour and doing nothing else. The two have a chemistry that relies on both of them being kind of dumb. Case in point is when Seymour and Audrey go on their first date. Seymour says “You want me to take your sweater?” He then takes Audrey’s sweater and throws it in a corner. Mel Welles is great as Mr. Mushnick and the two cops are obviously riffs on Dragnet characters. Even Jack Nicholson (who I didn’t recognize at first) is oddly funny as the pain-loving Wilbur Force.
Returning to the idea of Reefer Madness, the trajectory of the plot is much like that cautionary tale. Seymour wants to impress his friends by growing Audrey Junior, but it comes at the expense of Seymour’s soul. Eventually at the end Seymour pays the ultimate price.
I don’t know what I really expected from Little Shop of Horrors. I think this is a film that I’ll need to revisit in a few months and really see if it soaks in the second time around. That’s the problem with cult films, if you’re not in the right mindset you end up not understanding their joy. Judge for yourself: the entire movie can be watched here
Grade: C+ (that could be revised).
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.