For more than 25 years, people have been watching (and loving) Frank Oz’s film adaptation of the musical Little Shop of Horrors. It’s an awesome film, with a great cast, great music, and just great everything. Still, there’s something odd about the way it ends. Both the stage musical it’s based on and the 1960 Roger Corman film which, in turn, inspired the musical end in death and despair, but that isn’t the case for the theatrically-released 1986 movie-musical. Despite the final hint of something sinister, everything seems to work out in the end for Seymour Krelborn and Audrey.
But that wasn’t how things were supposed to go. The ending of Little Shop of Horrors was supposed to be tragic, much closer to the musical with its mass destruction, and far beyond what took place during the 1960 film. Explosions, demolitions, and all manner of chaos were supposed to rein throughout the world. And for the majority of production, rein they did. Everyone involved in the project (save a couple of less-optimistic souls) believed that an unhappy ending would still pull people to the theater, and the film was conceived, written, and shot with that belief in mind.
Unfortunately, it all came crashing down when Little Shop of Horrors was put in front of test audiences in San Jose. The rules of test screenings go something like this (or at least they did in 1986): audience members watch movie, audience members fill out reaction sheet, studio execs read reaction sheet, studio execs exert control over filmmakers. The key question on that sheet is: “Would you recommend this film to someone?” If fewer than 55% of the answers are “Yes,” something needs to be changed. For Little Shop, that number was 13%, and the same thing happened at another test screening in LA. Something had to give, and reactions told everyone involved that it was the ending. Nobody wanted to watch Audrey and Seymour die. They wanted things to be pretty and happy.
So Oz changed it. For three weeks, he reshot the film to make the movie that is known and loved today. And the original ending, which hadn’t quite been finished at the time of the test screening, seemed to have disappeared. Aside from some ugly black-and-white work-print footage released on a soon-after-recalled Special Edition DVD, nobody was really sure where the footage had gone, and no one really knew what the original ending looked like. Thankfully, a team from Warner Home Video led by Kurt Galvao (who was a restoration consultant on Blade Runner: The Final Cut) set about restoring the film as it was meant to be seen, and it premiered on Saturday, September 29 as part of the New York Film Festival Masterworks section.
Director Frank Oz, actress Ellen Greene, and composer Alan Menken at a Q&A following the screening. Photo: Belem Destefani
It’s interesting to rewatch the theatrical release having seen The Intended Cut (as it refers to itself in the credits), in part because the scale is so much diminished. An enormous amount of work went into creating the finale of devastation and essentially none of it was usable. Oz said in a Q&A session that the hardest phone call he ever had to make was to miniature creator Richard Conway, who had spent one year and one million dollars putting everything together, letting him know that his work would not be in the final release. What happens isn’t terrible by any means, but it’s obvious that things were done in three weeks, because there isn’t much to it. Most (but not all) of the big intense moments in the finale were repurposed from the original footage with inserts to change the way things were perceived (something that is fascinating to watch in and of itself).
Still, there are some hints of the director’s original vision in the film. Those who have seen Little Shop a number of times may have noticed that Audrey leaves Audrey II’s mouth at the end with blood on her dress where she was presumably bitten, only to have it immediately disappear. In the original (spoiler warning for everything here on out), Audrey dies of the injuries inflicted upon her by Audrey II and then is fed to the plant as a sacrifice to further Seymour’s future.
During the Q&A following the film, composer Alan Menken mentioned that there had originally been two versions of Little Shop of Horrors. At the time, the idea of adapting an old exploitation movie was pretty crazy, and Menken and his partner Howard Ashman came up with a version that was relatively close in tone to Roger Corman’s film. (He then sang a few bars from it, and it sounded fantastic.) But when put up against the “dark side of Grease” version that came to be, it didn’t have much of a chance. Corman’s film, which bears some similarities to his 1959 film Bucket of Blood (a much more serious film about a sculptor who kills people to use as subjects), is a very different entity than the musical it inspired. Obviously a lot of changes have to be made to take a film, especially a shoestring-budget exploitation film, and turn it into an off-Broadway hit. And then, obviously, a lot of changes were made to put that stage production back on the screen. Howard Ashman wrote an initial draft of the screenplay, but Frank Oz was asked to rewrite it when he took the director’s chair. Oz said that he didn’t change a single line of dialogue in the screenplay, but he took the story from a stage sensibility to a movie sensibility.
Some of the more notable changes from screen to stage to screen involve the role of the dentist, who was a sadist in Corman’s original, but had no real importance to the story. Instead, he was simply another victim in Seymour’s unintentional reign of terror. Bill Murray’s turn as the masochistic Arthur Denton was not based on any character from the stage play but on the character of Wilbur Force from Corman’s film, famously played by Jack Nicholson in one of his earliest roles. In the original film, Force ends up being the patient of a terrified Seymour, whose lack of training gives Force the painful experience he was looking for. It’s a great scene and I’m glad it was brought back, at least in spirit, to the movie-musical.
Perhaps the greatest omission from either of the adaptations was the character of Seymour’s mother. In the original film, Seymour constantly has to take care of his mother, a hypochondriac who may or may not actually be diseased. Regardless of her actual health, she drinks cough syrup with dinner and covers the food with all sorts of “healthy” items. Unaware that food is supposed to taste good, Seymour does the same. She’s an interesting character, and I think she would have had some pretty great songs, but the musical’s singular focus on the shop and those people immediately affected by it meant that some cuts had to be made. As much as I liked the character, it was for the best.
And then we return to the ending. What about the film’s original, epic finale turned audiences off so much? Oz pointed to two reasons: the close-ups and the curtain call (or lack thereof). In a play, everything is in a wide shot, but the close-up gets the audience right up there with the characters, creating a different kind of connection. That connection is made stronger, and the severing of that bond becomes that much more painful. This is compounded by the fact that the end of a film is simply that. In a stage musical, the entire cast comes out (and probably sings a song together); a movie-musical ends with the credits. Seymour Krelborn and Audrey are dead, and that’s that.
Actress Ellen Greene and composer Alan Menken performing live. Photo: Belem Destefani
Twenty-six years later, I think it’s time for the world to finally see Little Shop of Horrors the way Frank Oz and the entire cast and crew intended for it to be seen. The new ending is intense, crazy, brilliant, and I am very sad this isn’t the classic that everybody and their mother knows about. It is in every way a better film. Ignoring the fact that the theatrical release had a new ending that was essentially rushed out the door, the general tone of the film fits far better into a world of total chaos and destruction. It’s a world where Seymour has seen and done terrible things, and for all intents and purposes he should be a pretty disturbed guy. The film sets itself up for the terror that reigns, and going anywhere else just seems inappropriate. Restorations of old films have been very popular in recent years, and it’s awesome to see higher quality versions of these classics, but the restoration (and in some cases recreation) of 20-plus minutes of presumed-to-be-lost footage is something much rarer. I imagine Warner Home Video will be releasing The Intended Cut or The Director’s Cut or whatever it ends up being called within a year, possibly with some special features about the restoration process, which would be very cool to see. I’m looking forward to that. Telling people about how awesome the new ending is one thing, but getting to experience it with them and discuss it together is something else entirely.
I hope that day happens, and I hope it happens soon. When it does, I will be first in line.
Alec Kubas-Meyer is a member of the NYFF Critics Academy program. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlecJKM.
Watch video of actress Ellen Greene and composer Alan Menken performing songs from Little Shop of Horrors, as well as the full Q&A, after the screening of The Director's Cut at the 50th New York Film Festival: