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It Came From the Cultosphere: Roger Corman’s No-Budget ‘Little Shop of Horrors’

These days, when most people talk about ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ they mean the big-budget 1986 musical directed by Frank Oz featuring such comic legends as Rick Moranis, Steve Martin and Bill Murray. But I’m talking about the movie that inspired that movie (by way of a Broadway show): the 1960 bargain-basement comedy directed by legendary tightwad Roger Corman and featuring such forgotten actors as Jonathan Haze, Mel Welles and … Jack Nicholson.

It’s cheaper, it’s shorter and it’s in black-and-white, but for my money, it’s the one to watch. Filmed on a bet in two and a half days by Corman, the film tells the story of Mushnick’s Flowers, a Skid Row flower shop that becomes famous when the shop’s schmuck of a delivery boy, Seymour (Haze), breeds a colossal new strain of plant nicknamed “Audrey Jr.”  Store owner Gravis Mushnick (Welles) is more than happy to capitalize on the plant, not realizing that the secret to its growth is the fresh human flesh Seymour feeds it nightly.

It’s a standard horror movie plot, but Corman and company work wonders with it, turning it into a jet-black satire. Credit for much of the movie’s wit belongs to Charles B. Griffith, who not only wrote the screenplay, but also cameos as a gunman who winds up as plant food and provides the unforgettable voice for Audrey Jr. (“Feeeeeeed me!”). And the cast might be obscure, but the performances are strong, with Welles especially good, playing Mushnick as more and more paranoid as the bodies pile up.

And then there’s Jack Nicholson. Playing a masochistic dental patient (he’s first seen gleefully reading Pain Magazine in the waiting room), he winds up being treated by Seymour, who accidentally killed the real dentist in the previous scene. Seymour does untold damage to Jack’s teeth, but he loves every agonizing minute of it, vowing to recommend Seymour to all his friends as he leaves the office, smiling broadly through his few remaining teeth. In a movie full of strange scenes, it’s arguably the strangest — and the funniest.

“Little Shop of Horrors” slipped into the public domain decades ago, which means you can find it extremely cheap on DVD or, if that’s too much trouble, you can watch the entire movie right here, right now (and in a pretty nice print, too):

But a movie like this deserves more. ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ which played constantly on various late-night horror shows in the ’70s, is the sort of film that inspires a lifelong love of cinema, believe it or not. You see it as a kid and laugh at Audrey Jr., then as you get older, you see more and more to love — the ‘Dragnet’-spoof cops, a guest spot from Corman regular Dick Miller and those wonderfully evocative Skid Row locations.

Corman may have made the movie on a bet (and as a joke), but somehow, with that cast, that script, that crew and, of course, that plant, he achieved — against all odds and, frankly, all intentions — some sort of twisted greatness. As far as I know, legendary film critic Pauline Kael never reviewed ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ but she is famous for saying “Great movies are rarely perfect movies,” which serves as a review all by itself. Few movies are as imperfect — or as great — as ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’

Next Movie: Granddaddy of Dark, Paranoid Thrillers

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