Little Shop of Horrors is a 1986 American rock musical comedy horror film directed by Frank Oz. It is a film adaptation of the off-Broadway musical comedy of the same name by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman about a geeky florist shop worker who finds out his Venus flytrap can speak. Menken and Ashman’s Off-Broadway musical was based on the low-budget 1960 film The Little Shop of Horrors, directed by Roger Corman.
The film stars Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, and Levi Stubbs as the voice of Audrey II. The film also featured special appearances by Jim Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Guest and Bill Murray. It was produced by David Geffen through The Geffen Company and released by Warner Bros. on December 19, 1986.
Little Shop of Horrors was filmed on the Albert R. Broccoli 007 Stage at the Pinewood Studios in England, where a “downtown” set, complete with overhead train track, was constructed. Produced on a budget of $25 million, in contrast to the original 1960 film, which, according to Corman, only cost $30,000, it was well received by critics and audiences alike, eventually developing a cult following. The film’s original 23-minute finale, based on the musical’s ending, was rewritten and reshot after test audiences did not react positively to it. For years only available as black-and-white workprint footage, the original ending was fully restored in 2012 by Warner Home Video.
In the early 1960s, a three-girl “Greek chorus”—Crystal, Ronnette, and Chiffon—introduce the movie, warning the audience that some horror is coming their way (“Prologue: Little Shop of Horrors”). Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) and his colleague, Audrey (Ellen Greene), work at Mushnik’s Flower Shop in a run-down, rough neighborhood in New York City referred to as “Skid Row“. They lament that they cannot escape the neighborhood (“Skid Row (Downtown)”). Struggling from a lack of customers, Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) decides to close the store, but Audrey suggests he may have more success by displaying an unusual plant that Seymour owns. Immediately attracting a customer, Seymour explains he bought the plant, which he dubbed “Audrey II”, from a Chinese flower shop during a solar eclipse (“Da-Doo”). Attracting business to Mushnik’s shop, the plant soon starts dying, worrying Seymour. Accidentally pricking his finger, he then discovers Audrey II needs human blood to thrive (“Grow for Me”).
Seymour takes Audrey II and is interviewed on the radio, and Audrey misses the broadcast due to being “hand-cuffed a little” by her sadistic, mean-spirited boyfriend Orin Scrivello (Steve Martin). The three girls suggest Audrey dump Orin and get another man to protect her, like Seymour, but Audrey states she doesn’t deserve a nice guy. Despite this, Audrey has feelings for Seymour and secretly dreams of running off with him to the suburbs (“Somewhere That’s Green”). Audrey II continues to grow rapidly and Seymour becomes a local celebrity (“Some Fun Now”). Seymour soon attempts to ask Audrey out, but she turns him down because she has a date with her boyfriend, revealed to be a dentist (“Dentist!”). After Seymour closes up shop, Audrey II begins to talk to Seymour, demanding more blood than Seymour can give. The plant proposes that Seymour murder someone in exchange for fame and fortune: Seymour initially refuses, but agrees after witnessing Orin beating Audrey (“Feed Me (Get It)”).
After Orin finishes with his masochistic patient, Arthur Denton (Bill Murray), who requested “a long, slow, root canal”, Seymour books an appointment with Orin and arms himself with a revolver; however, he cannot bring himself to use it. Orin, who abuses nitrous oxide, puts on a type of venturi mask to receive a constant flow of the gas. Accidentally breaking an intake valve and unable to remove the mask, Orin begs Seymour for help removing it, but Seymour does nothing. When Orin asks Seymour what he ever did to him, Seymour coldly replies “Nothing, it’s what you did to her.” Orin dies from asphyxiation and Seymour drags his body back to Audrey II. While dismembering the body to feed to the plant, Seymour is unknowingly witnessed by Mushnik, who flees in fear.
After feeding Orin’s parts to Audrey II, which has grown to enormous size, Seymour discovers the police investigating Orin’s disappearance. Audrey, feeling guilty about wishing Orin would disappear, is comforted by Seymour and the two admit their feelings for each other (“Suddenly, Seymour”). That night, Mushnik confronts Seymour about what he saw and holds Seymour at gunpoint, threatening to report him to the police. Mushnik then changes his mind, saying that since Seymour was “like a son” to him, he’ll allow Seymour to leave town, blackmailing him into giving the plant to Mushnik. With no choice, Seymour steadily backs him towards the plant, which swallows Mushnik whole (“Suppertime”).
Despite widespread success, Seymour worries about Audrey II’s growth and unbridled appetite (“The Meek Shall Inherit”). Offered money and a contract for a botany TV show, Seymour plans to escape Skid Row with Audrey using the money, leaving the plant to starve. After Audrey accepts Seymour’s marriage proposal, Audrey II catches Seymour leaving and demands another meal: Seymour agrees, but insists on meat from a butcher. While Seymour is gone, the plant telephones Audrey, coaxes her into the shop, and then tries to eat her, in the process revealing to her that he also ate Orin and Mr. Mushnik. Seymour, returning in time to save Audrey, escapes the store with her. Explaining that he fed the plant to become successful and win Audrey’s heart, Seymour discovers she has always loved him. Approached by an executive named Patrick Martin (Jim Belushi) from a botanical company, Seymour is offered a contract to breed Audrey II and sell the saplings worldwide. Horrified by the idea, Seymour drives Martin away and realizes he must destroy Audrey II for the sake of humanity.
Returning to the shop, Seymour learns that Audrey II is actually an alien from outer space (“Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”). Audrey II traps Seymour and destroys the shop, but Seymour grabs an exposed electrical cable and electrocutes Audrey II. Leaving the destroyed shop, Seymour safely reunites with Audrey. The two wed and move to the suburbs: as they arrive at their new home, which is the one seen in Audrey’s daydreams, a smiling Audrey II bud can be seen among the flowers in their front yard.
During production, director Oz shot a 23-minute ending based on the off-Broadway musical’s ending. However, after audiences at the preview screenings did not react positively to it, the ending had to be rewritten and re-shot for the theatrical release with a “happier ending.”
In the original ending, when Audrey is attacked by the plant, Seymour pulls her from its jaws but is too late to save her, as she is mortally wounded. As she is dying she tells him what the plant said about Orin and Mushnik, and then Seymour confesses that he fed them to the plant. Audrey requests that Seymour feed her to the plant too so that it will live and Seymour can earn the success he deserves (“Somewhere That’s Green (Reprise)”). After fulfilling her dying wish, he attempts suicide by jumping off the roof of a building, only to be stopped by Patrick Martin. Martin offers to reproduce and sell Audrey IIs and has already grown a smaller Audrey II from one of the cuttings that he harvested earlier. He also warns Seymour that his consent is not necessary as plants are considered to be in the public domain. Realizing Audrey II is planning global domination, Seymour climbs down from the roof with the resolution to destroy the plant. Returning to the shop, he confronts and tries to kill Audrey II, who tears down the shop, fishes him from the rubble and eats him alive. The plant then spits out Seymour’s glasses and laughs victoriously (“Mean Green Mother from Outer Space)”.
The three chorus girls appear in front of a large American flag and tell how although Audrey II buds became a worldwide consumer craze, the buds grew into an army of monstrous plants who begin to take over the Earth. Giant Audrey II plants are shown destroying cities, toppling buildings, as well as eating people. The United States Army attempts to fight the buds as they ascend the Statue of Liberty and Audrey II eventually bursts through the movie screen and presumably eats the viewers (“Finale (Don’t Feed The Plants)”).
- Rick Moranis as Seymour Krelborn, a nerdy florist who loves “strange and interesting” plants. He is nice and well-intentioned, but is easily influenced: the plant, Audrey II, tricks him into feeding it humans.
- Ellen Greene as Audrey, a kind, shy, friendly, and awkward coworker who is the object of Seymour’s affections, but who is dating the sadistic Orin Scrivello.
- Vincent Gardenia as Mr. Mushnik, the grumpy, stingy owner of Mushnik’s Flower Shop.
- Steve Martin as Orin Scrivello, DDS, a sadistic, nitrous oxide-addicted dentist and Audrey’s violent, abusive boyfriend.
- Levi Stubbs as the voice of Audrey II, an evil and boisterous flytrap-like extraterrestrial plant with plans to take over the planet.
- Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell as Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon, the three mysterious girls who act as a Greek chorus and often provide back-up to the songs throughout the film.
- Jim Belushi as Patrick Martin, a Licensing and Marketing executive from World Botanical Enterprises who offers Seymour a proposal to sell Audrey IIs worldwide. Belushi appears in the theatrical release after re-shoots, as actor Paul Dooley (who played Martin in the original ending) was unavailable to reprise his scenes for the re-shoots.
- John Candy as Wink Wilkinson, the DJ for WSKID who puts on a radio show about “weird stuff” called “Wink Wilkinson’s Weird World”.
- Christopher Guest as The First Customer, the first customer to enter the flower shop and notice Audrey II.
- Bill Murray as Arthur Denton, a hyperactive masochist who visits Orin the dentist for “a long, slow root canal.”
- Miriam Margolyes as a Dental Nurse, Orin’s cynical nurse/secretary who Orin frequently appears to enjoy hurting.
- Stanley Jones as the Narrator, whose voice is heard reading the opening words.
- Mak Wilson, Danny John-Jules, Danny Cunningham, Gary Palmer, and Paul Swaby as the doo-wop backup singers.
- Jim Henson‘s daughter Heather Henson cameos as one of Orin’s patients.
- Vincent Wong as the Chinese Florist
- Kerry Shale as Life magazine assistant
- Audrey II was operated by John Alexander, Anthony Asbury, Don Austen, David Barclay, Michael Barclay, James Barton, Michael Bayliss, Marcus Clarke, Sue Dacre, Graham Fletcher, Brian Henson, Terry Lee, Christopher Leith, Toby Philpott, Mike Quinn, Paul Springer, William Todd-Jones, Ian Tregonnian, Robert Tygner, and Mak Wilson.
- “Prologue: Little Shop of Horrors”– Chiffon, Ronette, Crystal
- “Skid Row (Downtown)”– Seymour, Audrey, Mushnik, Chiffon, Ronette, Crystal, Company
- “Da-Doo”– Seymour, Chiffon, Ronette, Crystal
- “Grow for Me”– Seymour, Chiffon, Ronette, Crystal (off-screen)
- “Somewhere That’s Green”– Audrey
- “Some Fun Now”– Chiffon, Ronette, Crystal
- “Dentist!”– Orin, Chiffon, Ronette, Crystal
- “Feed Me (Git It)”– Audrey II, Seymour
- “Suddenly, Seymour”– Seymour, Audrey, Chiffon, Ronette, Crystal
- “Suppertime”– Audrey II, Chiffon, Ronette, Crystal
- “The Meek Shall Inherit”– Chiffon, Ronette, Crystal, Company
- “Suppertime (Reprise)”– Audrey II, Audrey, Chiffon, Ronette and Crystal (off screen)
- “Suddenly, Seymour (Reprise)”– Audrey, Seymour
- “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”– Audrey II, the Pods
- “Little Shop of Horrors medley” (end credits)– Company
- Original ending
- “Somewhere That’s Green (Reprise)”– Audrey, Seymour
- “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”– Audrey II, the Pods
- “Finale (Don’t Feed the Plants)”– Chiffon, Ronette, Crystal, Company
David Geffen was one of the original producers of the off-Broadway show and he began planning to produce a feature film adaptation. Originally Steven Spielberg was to executive produce the film and Martin Scorsese was to direct, Scorsese wanting to shoot the film in 3D even, but production was stalled when a lawsuit was filed by the original film’s screenwriter and actor, Charles B. Griffith. John Landis was also attached to the project for a time.
Geffen then offered the film to Frank Oz, who was finishing work on The Muppets Take Manhattan around the same time. Oz initially rejected it, but he later had an idea that got him into the cinematic aspect of the project, which he did not figure out before. Oz spent a month and a half to restructure the script which he felt was stage-bound. Geffen and Ashman liked what he had written and decided to go with what he did. Oz was also studying the Off-Broadway show and how it was thematically constructed, all in order to reconstruct it for a feature film.
The film differs only slightly from the stage play. The title song is expanded to include an additional verse to allow for more opening credits. The song “Ya Never Know” was re-written into a calypso-style song called “Some Fun Now”, although some of the lyrics were retained. Four other songs (“Closed for Renovation”, “Mushnik and Son”, “Now (It’s Just the Gas)”, as well as “Call Back in the Morning”) were cut from the original production score. An original song written by Ashman and Menken, “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”, was created for the film.
Greene was not the first choice for the role of Audrey. The studio wanted Cyndi Lauper, who turned it down. Barbra Streisand was also rumored to have been offered the part. Since Greene was the original off-Broadway Audrey, the role was given to her. “She’s amazing,” Oz said. “I couldn’t imagine any other Audrey, really. She nailed that part for years off-Broadway.” The character of the masochistic dental patient, Arthur Denton, played in the original film by Jack Nicholson under the name “Wilbur Force”, and cut from the stage version, was added back to the story and played by Bill Murray, who improvised all of his dialogue. It supposedly took Steve Martin six weeks to film all his scenes as Orin. He contributed ideas such as socking the nurse in the face (originally he was to knock her out using his gas mask) and ripping off the doll head.
All the scenes were filmed at Pinewood Studios in England, making use of every sound stage there, including the 007 Stage. Oz and his crew did not want to shoot on location as it would tamper with the fantastical mood of the film. Part of the giant 007 stage was used to film the ‘Suddenly Seymour’ number. But because of its size, the stage was impractical to heat properly and thus caused breath condensation to appear from the actor’s lips. This was countered by having Ellen Greene and Rick Moranis put ice cubes in their mouths. This would be the first time Moranis and Martin starred in a film together, and they would later appear together in three more films: Parenthood, My Blue Heavenand L.A. Story.
As mentioned, additional sequences and songs from the original off-Broadway show were dropped or re-written in order for the feature version to be paced well. The notable change was for the “Meek Shall Inherit” sequence. As originally filmed, it detailed through a dream sequence Seymour’s rising success and the need to keep the plant fed and impress Audrey. In the final cut, the dream sequence and much of the song is cut out. Oz said, “I cut that because I felt it just didn’t work and that was before the first preview in San Jose. It was the right choice, it didn’t really add value to the entire cut.” The full version of the song was included on the film’s soundtrack album, as were the songs from the original ending. The sequence was deemed to be lost until in 2012 when it was rediscovered on a VHS workprint that contained alternate and extended takes and sequences.
The film’s version of Audrey II was an elaborate creation, using puppets designed by Lyle Conway.
While developing the mouth of the plant for the dialogue scenes and musical numbers, Oz, Conway and his crew struggled to figure out how to make the plant move convincingly. “We kept trying and trying and it didn’t work.” The solution presented itself while reviewing test footage of the puppet. When the film ran backwards or forward at a faster than normal speed, the footage looked more convincing and lifelike. They realized they could film the puppet at a slower speed, making it appear to move faster when played back at normal speed. “By slowing it down it looked it was talking real fast. We then went ‘holy cow, look at that. We can do it.'” The frame rate for filming the plant was slowed to 12 or 16 frames per second, depending on the scene, and frequent screen cuts were used to minimize the amount of screen time the puppet spent with human actors; when interaction was necessary, the actors (usually Moranis) would pantomime and lip sync in slow motion. The film was then sped up to the normal 24 frames per second and voices were reinserted in post-production. Levi Stubbs’ recordings were filtered through a harmonizer when slowed down so that they were coherent for Moranis or Ellen Greene.
There are no blue screens or opticals involved in any of Audrey II’s scenes, with the exception of the reshot ending where the plant is electrocuted, designed by Visual Effects supervisor Bran Ferren, and in some shots during the rampage in the original ending. The plant was made in six different stages of growth and there were three different versions of Mushnik’s shop, making it possible for two units to work with different sized plants at the same time.
Each of the talking plants had to be cleaned, re-painted and patched up at the end of each shooting day, which would take up to three hours depending on the size. The “Suppertime” number uses two different sizes of Audrey II. When the plant is singing all alone in the shop, it is actually a smaller size: the same size as when it sang “Feed Me”, but now standing on a scaled down set to make it look larger. The full size one that is seen to interact with Seymour and Mushnik was not provided with lip movement, but was built to swallow Mushnik’s (mechanical) legs. During Audrey II’s final stage of growth, 60 technicians were necessary to operate the one-ton puppet.
Oz and Ashman wanted to retain the ending of the musical where Seymour and Audrey die and the plant succeeds and takes over the city of New York, but Geffen was actually against it. “He said you can’t do that,” Oz recounts. “But again he knew what Howard and I wanted to do, so he supported us.” A special effects team skilled in working with miniatures, and Special Visual Effects team, went to great lengths to create the finale. The model department was supervised by Richard Conway, known for his model work on Flash Gordon and Brazil. “It was all model stuff, that was the brilliant thing. He created the bridge, the buildings, several Audrey IIs and created all of it, all on tabletop. It’s all old-fashioned, tabletop animation” [although no stop motion animation was used in the film or in the ending]. The Visual Effects work was supervised by Bran Ferren (Altered States).
Reportedly the entire planned climax cost about $5 million to produce, and included elaborate special and visual effects. Oz said in an interview, “this was, I think, the most expensive film Warner Bros. had done at the time.” As the film was nearing completion, the excited studio set up a test screening in San Jose. Oz said, “For every musical number, there was applause, they loved it, it was just fantastic… until Rick and Ellen died, and then the theatre became a refrigerator, an ice box. It was awful and the cards were just awful. You have to have a 55 percent “recommend” to really be released and we got a 13. It was a complete disaster.” Oz insisted on setting another test screening in L.A. to see if they would get a different reaction. Geffen agreed to this, but they received the same negative reaction as before. Oz later recounted, “I learned a lesson: in a stage play, you kill the leads and they come out for a bow—in a movie, they don’t come out for a bow, they’re dead. They’re gone and so the audience lost the people they loved, as opposed to the theater audience where they knew the two people who played Audrey and Seymour were still alive. They loved those people, and they hated us for it.”
Oz and Ashman scrapped Audrey and Seymour’s grim deaths and the finale rampage, and Ashman rewrote a happier ending, with Jim Belushi replacing Paul Dooley (who was unavailable for the re-shoot) as Patrick Martin. The musical number “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” was left mostly intact from the original cut, with new shots of Audrey observing from a window added in. A brief sequence from the “Mean Green Mother” number was also removed in which Seymour fires his revolver at Audrey II, only to discover that the bullets ricochet harmlessly off of the plant. In the happy ending, Audrey II is destroyed and Seymour, Audrey, and humanity survive. This happy ending is made somewhat ambiguous, however, with a final shot of a smiling Audrey II bud in Seymour and Audrey’s front yard. Tisha Campbell was unavailable for the final appearance of the chorus girls in the yard and was replaced with a lookalike seen only from the waist down.
“We had to do it,” Oz recounted. “[and do it] in such a manner that the audience would enjoy the movie. It was very dissatisfying for both of us that we couldn’t do what we wanted. So creatively, no, it didn’t satisfy us and being true to the story. But we also understood the realities that they couldn’t release the movie if we had that ending.” “We had to take [the workprint] apart, and we never made a dupe of [the original ending].” At the time, the only copies of it that were made to be viewed were VHS workprint tapes given to few crew members. The scene in which Seymour proposes to Audrey originally contained the reprise of “Suddenly, Seymour”. This scene was re-shot and the reprise was placed later in the new ending. In the final theatrical cut, the only miniatures that are retained are the New York City streets passing behind Steve Martin’s motorcycle ride at the beginning of “Dentist!” “When we did re-shoot the ending, the crowd reaction went over 50 percent in our favor. Before it was a point where they hated it so much, Warner probably wouldn’t even release the movie,” Oz said.
Little Shop of Horrors, after a delay needed to complete the revised ending, was released on December 19, 1986 and was anticipated to do strong business over the 1986 holiday season. The film grossed $39 million at the box office, which, from the viewpoint of the studio, was considered an underperformer. However, it became a smash hit upon its home video release in 1987 on VHS and Beta.
The film was also nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Best Visual Effects (Lyle Conway, Bran Ferren, Martin Gutteridge), the other for Best Original Song (Alan Menken, Howard Ashman) for Audrey II’s new number, “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”. “Mean Green” was the first Oscar-nominated song to contain profanity in the lyrics and thus had to be slightly censored for the show. It’s also the first of only two songs sung by a villain to be nominated, the other being “Blame Canada” from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (which also featured profanity). “Mean Green” lost to “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun. It was also nominated for Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical (losing to Hannah and Her Sisters) and Best Original Score (Miles Goodman) during the 44th Golden Globe Awards. The Score went to Ennio Morricone for The Mission.