THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is an eccentric horror-comedy whose very premise almost single-handedly guarantees cult status: it’s about a goofy guy who becomes a homicidal outlaw after accidentally cross-breeding a carnivorous plant that not only craves humans for food but also talks, demanding in a ridiculously insistent voice: “Feed me! Feed meeeeeeee.”). The concept is so crazy that you have to laugh – in disbelief, if nothing else. Whether the film fully lives up to its reputation is another matter, but there is no doubt that THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS has earned its small place in cult movie history.
My own reactions to the film have waxed and waned over the years. As a young fan of classic horror movies, particularly those from Universal Pictures, I saw THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS as just another bad monster movie that showed up on the local Creature Features show instead of something good like like DRACULA (1931) or FRANKENSTEIN (1931). THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS looked cheap to me; the talking plant was not scary; and the ending was too abrupt, leaving me with a “is that all?” feeling.
In grade school, I first realized I had missed the joke: after a weekend airing of the film, I returned to class on Monday and heard some other student talking about “the funniest movie I have ever seen.” He seemed particularly amused by the voice of the talking plant, whose plaintive demands of “Feed me!” he did his best to imitate for the rest of the class. The next time the film aired, I watched again, thinking of it as a comedy, and indeed found myself laughing.
Later, as I started reading books and magazines about films, horror films in particular, I came across the hitherto alien concept of camp – of enjoying a bad movie by laughing at it. I think it started to occur to me that films like THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS beat audiences to the punch, deliberately embracing their low-budget origins and inviting viewers to giggle at their shoddy production values.
I put the theory to the test during various television airings over the years and eventually at theatrical screening on the campus of the University of Southern California, during a weekend long festival of horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. The weird humor of the film went over even better with an appreciative audience,* and there was the additional bonus of an after-screening panel with the cast and crew.
Mostly what I remember from the question-and-answer session is producer-director Roger Corman explaining that the voice of Audrey, the talking plant, was delivered by screenwriter Charles B. Griffith on set; Corman had planned to loop in his own voice during post-production but then decided to save a buck by leaving in the sound recorded live. Also, actress Jackie Joseph (who played Audrey, the woman after whom the plant is named) expressed her amazement at the film’s longevity, noting that from time to time she would hear people quoting the talking plant, most recently at a fast-food drive-in, where she approached a man she heard calling out, “Feed me!” as he waited impatiently for his food to be delivered. His awestruck response to seeing Joseph in person was: “You – you were in…that movie!”
That long-ago screening – a 20th anniversary screening, if memory serves, back in 1980 – was probably the pinnacle of my enjoyment of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Since then, the humor has begun to wear a little thin, especially because much of it is too far broad when it should be droll and deadpan. Except for a couple of cops doing a dead-on DRAGNET impersonation, the performances tend to be very broad, almost to the point of elbowing you in the ribs. Fortunately, the film is so off-the-wall and eager to please that you have to sort of like it – you simply can’t totally knock a film that so joyfully embraces its own absurdity.
Audrey the carnivorous carnation is still fun, but the real satirical highlight of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is her half-witted creator, Seymour Krelboin, played with pathetic sincerity by Jonathan Haze. Seymour is a nobody who wants to be somebody; he gets his wish when Audrey attracts crowds of paying customers to Mushnik’s flower shop, but fames comes with a price that must be paid in blood. As Audrey grows bigger and hungrier, Seymour must satisfy the plant’s demands more food, leading him – reluctantly and mostly accidentally – to kill a handful of victims.
The idea of the unassuming schnook going rogue is priceless comedy gold, but it is essentially a retread of Corman’s earlier production, BUCKET OF BLOOD, also scripted by Charles B. Griffith. Although LITTLE SHOP has gained greater fame because of its talking plant (leading to an off-Broadway musical that was turned into a 1986 movie), it is the lesser of the two films; its skid-row setting (indicative of the poverty row production values) offers some comic potential, but it is no match for the Beatnik coffee house of BUCKET OF BLOOD.
Still, THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS has a few good things going for it, like the character of Burson Fouch, who casually purchases flowers not to look at them but to eat them; Dick Miller’s matter of fact approach to the character’s eccentricity hits just the right note. (Miller was offered the lead role but turned it down because it was too much like the lead role he had just played in BUCKET OF BLOOD.) There is also a good bit wherein store owner Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles), who suspects the truth about Audrey, stays late to prevent the plant from eating anyone else – only to wind up saving his own neck by fooling an armed robber into searching for hidden loot inside the maw of the killer vegetable. And of course there is the memorable cameo by a young Jack Nicholson, as a masochist who comes to the dentist in search of pain – not knowing the Krellboin has killed the dentist and taken his place.
Of course, you cannot discuss THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS without discussing the legend of its creation. This little low-budget film was pumped out at high-speed even by the lightening-paced standards of Corman, who was known for knocking off an entire film in a week; reputedly, the shooting for THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS was completed within two days. Like many legends, this one is not completely true, although there is an element of truth to it. The interior scenes were apparently shot in the stated time; however, several exterior scenes were shot later, under the direction of screenwriter Griffiths.
(In a retrospective article on the making of the film, which appeared in an issue of Cinefantastique magazine devoted to the 1986 remake, Dennis Fischer credits Griffith with being the unsung genius behind THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS; though Griffith deserves credit for the screenplay, the exterior footage he directed is mostly lacking in interest, especially a lackluster attempt at a slapstick chase near the end, with Krellboin outrunning Detectives Fink and Stoolie. The one exception is Krellboin’s accidental killing of a drunk, who stumbles in front of a train after being hit in the head by a rock intended to hit an empty bottle; there is something both ghastly and darkly amusing about the sudden shocking realization that Seymour has become a killer. Of course, it all works out conveniently, because he can dispose of the evidence by feeding the body parts to Audrey.)
I’m not sure I will be revisiting THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS often in the future (I’m more likely to review BUCKET OF BLOOD). But it continues to hold a fond place in my heart. The broad caricatures (Seymour’s drunken mother, the dentist who challenges Seymour to a duel with his drill) will probably elicit more groan than chuckles from modern audiences. Nevertheless, the low-budget ambiance adds its own vitality to the film, which I think of as the cinematic equivalent of a garage band: it’s not up to the professional standards we usually expect from our entertainment, but it’s just so much fun to see so much raw enthusiasm reach the screen in a form unpasteurized by the slick and often soulless stylings seen in many big-budget productions. In a sense, THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS creates its own standards; you can take ’em or leave ’em, but you have to give the film at least a small measure of respect on its own terms.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960). Produced and directed by Roger Corman; additional scenes directed by Charles B. Griffith. Written by Charles B. Griffith. Cast: Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, Myrtle Vail, Tammy Windsor, Toby Michaels. Leola Wendorff, Lynn Storey, Wally Campo, Jack Warford, Meri Welles, John Herman Shaner, Jack Nicholson.
- Note everyone was appreciative at the screening. Some of the crew responsible for SHOGUN ASSASSIN, the re-edited and dubbed version of the Japanese Lone Wolf movies that was also screening at the fest, were nothing but contemptuous of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’s camp humor. Considering that their big achievement was to take a great Japanese original, cut out all the plot, leave in all the violence, and add a new soundtrack (with bad synth music, unnecessary narration, and lame attempts at deadpan camp), you would think they would act a bit less high and mighty.