At Mushnick’s Florist, a small flower shop on skid row, Seymour (Jonathan Haze) is an unassuming employee. To avoid losing his job, he brings in a special plant he’s been nursing. The plant, Audrey Junior — named after Seymour’s beautiful co-worker, Audrey (Jackie Joseph) — is frail and apparently dying. Seymour’s care seems to have no effect until that evening at the shop when, quite by accident, Seymour learns that Audrey Junior is responsive to his blood. The strange plant brings in some customers, but it quickly returns to its feeble state. Seymour considers his next move, and Audrey Junior clears up his indecision by stating bluntly, “Feed me.” That night, the lowly employee is lucky enough to happen upon an accidental death, and Audrey Junior grows in size and popularity. Meanwhile, the plant’s appeal for sustenance is vigorous and persistent, and suddenly Seymour is at a loss as to where he might find food. But let’s face it: with a sadistic dentist (John Shaner) who enjoys inflicting pain on his patients, how hard can it be?
Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) is a wonderfully diverting black comedy. Though the man-eating plant takes center stage, it’s supported by a motley cast: the customer (Dick Miller) who, as an Audrey Junior counterpart, buys flowers for consumption; Seymour’s hypochondriac mother (Myrtle Vail), whose meals are spiced and garnished with various medications; and the investigating cops, Joe Fink (Wally Campo) and Frank Stoolie (Jack Warford), who are so apathetic that Stoolie casually and coldly tells Fink that his own son has died from playing with matches — and then lights a cigarette. Haze is quite good as Seymour, who’s passive but never measly, and his romance with Audrey is a high point of the film. Seymour’s boss, Mushnick (Mel Welles), adds even more humor to the plot, insisting that his employee call him “Dad” when Audrey Junior piques customers’ interests, but then retracting that when the plant isn’t looking well.
A number of cast members had previously worked with Corman and would work with him again. Screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, who has several smaller roles in The Little Shop of Horrors, including a would-be robber and the voice of Audrey Junior, scripted Corman’s earlier effort, A Bucket of Blood (1959), which starred Miller (read more about the great Dick Miller here). However, the movie’s most famous star is Jack Nicholson, who appears in a single scene as a masochistic patient of the dentist. Even today, varying home media releases of the 1960 film will highlight Nicholson’s appearance.
The Little Shop of Horrors garnered a cult following, a status that was solidified by an Off-Broadway adaptation in 1982, written by composer Alan Menken and playwright/lyricist Howard Ashman. The production eventually moved to Broadway and was further adapted into a cinematic musical in 1986. The movie was directed by Frank Oz and starred Rick Moranis as Seymour, Ellen Greene as Audrey, and a scene-stealing Steve Martin as the dentist. Levi Stubbs, lead vocalist for the Four Tops, provided the voice of the plant, called Audrey II in the adaptations.
Corman filmed The Little Shop of Horrors in two days. The director has stated that the film’s budget was $30,000, which would make the 1986 musical’s reported $25 million budget over 800 times higher. In Corman’s 1960 original, Audrey Junior is, essentially, a mutation or some type of deformity. Its origins are a little unclear, as Seymour claims that he bought seeds from a Japanese gardener and then later defines the plant as a cross between a butterwort and a Venus Flytrap. Audrey II of the stage and film adaptation is an alien, a fact that’s nearly impossible to forget with the catchy number, “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”.
The musicals are topnotch, but one shouldn’t negate the skill of Roger Corman. The singing and dancing rev up the comedy, but the 1960 movie was already funny, and some might argue that the original has a charm that the adaptations don’t quite match. With a shoestring budget and made in little time, The Little Shop of Horrors is a testament to Corman as a director and producer. Success isn’t predicated on the size of the production. Sometimes it only takes a little shop. And a man-eating plant.
This post originally ran last year and is being reprinted as part of our celebration of the life and work of Dick Miller.