The Spectacularly Tragic Little Shop Of Horrors That Wasn’t

little shop

In the ending of Little Shop Of Horrors that screened in theaters in 1986, alien plant Audrey II is defeated. The music swells. Seymour Krelborn emerges from the dust and rubble, adjusts his glasses, and whisks Audrey I to the generic comforts of 1960s suburbia. The final image is of a small, smiling, freshly sprouted flytrap in the garden bed.

It wasn’t meant to end that way.

For nearly 30 years, fans of the film and its source material have been tormented by the knowledge that an entirely different ending had been shot, one darker, grander, and truer to the intentions of director Frank Oz, screenwriter Howard Ashman, and composer Alan Menken: an ending in which, as in the Off-Broadway musical before it and the 1960 Roger Corman movie before that, the plant devours Seymour and Audrey, then wreaks havoc on the world in terrific fashion.

In 2012, the full color ending finally saw the light of day on the Blu-Ray release of the film, in a 26-years-late director’s cut. (A black-and-white work-print version of the ending appeared on the 1998 DVD.) But does the long-lost completed ending really trample all over the theatrically released version, as fans thought it would?

In the alternate ending, after Audrey II has dispatched Audrey and Seymour, and the camera has lingered on the expired floral assistant’s cracked glasses, a single bass note sounds on a piano, and the girl-group Greek Chorus of Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon emerge in front of an American flag to sing lyrics that mimic the dry, newsreel parlance of a B-movie epilogue:

Audrey II plantlings fly off shelves, with customers crowding cash registers and stuffing trolleys full of the little beasts. Soon, humongous Audrey IIs terrorize New York, sending cabs and debris flying, plowing through buildings, sitting atop the Brooklyn Bridge, pursuing the screaming and scattering masses. Impervious to army gunfire, a pair of Audrey IIs mount the Statue Of Liberty, one of them dangling its tendrils from the diadem like the snakes of Medusa. Finally, Audrey II crashes through the movie screen itself, and the audience is launched headfirst into its laughing, gaping maw.

It was the realization of the War Of The Worlds-style mayhem merely alluded to in the stage version, which concludes—per Ashman’s stage directions, anyway—with vines springing out of the ceiling into the auditorium, and Audrey II, branches extended, hauling itself downstage to menace the front rows of the audience.

That was the ending Ashman and Oz wanted to bring to the screen. The movie’s producer, David Geffen, who also co-produced the stage version, was skeptical, but let them go through with it anyway. According to reports, $5 million was spent on the climax—about a fifth of the total budget of $25 million, making it, at the time, the most expensive movie Warner Bros. had ever produced. Filmed in the same sound stage at London’s Pinewood Studios and released in the same year, Aliens had an approximate budget of $18 million.

At the first test screening of Little Shop Of Horrors in San Jose, the audience loved it. They even applauded after musical numbers, as Off-Broadway audiences had done. But then the lead characters died, and the plant won. In Oz’s own recollection, it was a disaster: “The theater became a refrigerator, an ice box.” Menken thought the screening had gone well until he clocked Geffen’s reaction. Typically with test screenings, recommendation scores falling below 55 percent are cause for serious concern. According to Oz, who claims to have kept the audience’s vote cards, the film scored a 13. It only fared slightly better in a second test screening, held in vain, in Los Angeles.

Consequently, some 23 minutes of footage was scrapped. Oz made the difficult phone call to Richard Conway, whose visual-effects team had labored on the climactic sequence for almost a year. (Conway has said that, for his part, he immediately went into denial. Unfortunately, his next project, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, was beset by financial catastrophe on an even more monumental scale.) With Warner Bros. understandably reluctant to release the film as it was, Oz and Ashman knew what had to be done. A new, happy ending was written—including another celebrity cameo from Jim Belushi—shot in about three weeks, and tacked on. The insertion occurs at the beginning of what used to be Audrey’s dramatic death scene: “I’m okay!” she says in the theatrically released version, getting back to her feet. The bloody stain on her dress from a moment ago, and apparently the fatal wound, have disappeared without a trace.

Entirely discarding the ending—still one of the most expensive deleted pieces of footage ever—instead of incorporating more of the original footage into the rewrite might seem like throwing the botany out with the bathwater. But by that point, Oz and Ashman probably weren’t in the mood to take any chances. The only clue to the film’s wicked former glory was that final cheeky shot of the baby Audrey II budding—a B-movie punchline so instantly familiar that, for example, it was essentially replicated two years later in another movie about an extraterrestrial life form with a fearsome appetite, the 1988 remake ofThe Blob. As the filmmakers’ own enthusiasm wilted, audience satisfaction shot up. “Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war,” Oz has said.

However, after a detailed exploration of the alternate ending in a 1987Cinefex article, and with the excised closing musical number somehow making it onto the official movie soundtrack, it was bound to persist in people’s imaginations, leading many to resent the cutesy daydream offered in place of the awesome nightmare. The shoddy but tantalizing work-print footage on the 1998 DVD got the discs recalled. Geffen instead planned to issue a full-color version that, it turned out, he didn’t have, and that Oz insisted didn’t exist—further cementing the scene’s mythical status.

At last, for the Blu-Ray release, the missing footage was recovered, in color, from archived reels in Los Angeles, London, and Kansas. The original ending was meticulously reconstructed, restoring Seymour, Audrey, and the rest of humanity to the grisly fate they’d been spared 26 years earlier. More cut footage resurfaced that year that wasn’t included on the Blu-Ray, but can be found on YouTube: the unexpurgated version of “The Meek Shall Inherit,” a sequence that highlights Seymour’s central dilemma—kill the plant or keep the girl—and features what might have been Moranis’ finest vocal performance in the film. Oz felt the scene added little to the movie, though, and he cut it even before the San Jose screening. Again, however, the full song made it to the soundtrack.

It’s easy (and fun!) to deride those 1986 test audiences as uncultured philistine sissies who’d never even heard of Faust. But the question of whether the lost ending is actually truer to the spirit of the stage version, as was intended, may not be so clear-cut.

The visual effects in the monster-movie climax are tremendous, as was promised over the years. Smaller Audrey II puppets were filmed at different speeds in variously sized miniature sets, which allowed the same puppet to appear to be anything from 20 to 120 feet high. It’s funny, sort of: one pod blows on a smokestack, which results in the entire building blowing up; another gulps down a train that has shot straight into its mouth on an elevated railway; yet another bursts through the wall of a theater showing Jason And The Argonauts. But as the effects became increasingly elaborate, the sequence perhaps became more alarming than originally envisioned—especially when combined with the live-action footage of terrified city folk. “We tried to make it as humorous as possible,” Conway said, “but it turned out to be quite realistic, and pretty heavy.”

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Oz was rooting for the puppets all along. He himself has commented that he personally hadn’t counted on audiences falling so deeply for Seymour and Audrey. He’s theorized that following their story in cinematic close-up—as opposed to the unavoidably permanent wide shot of the theater—made movie audiences more deeply sympathetic than theater audiences. He’s also suggested that the deaths in the stage version are more palatable because the actors soon rematerialize for their curtain call. And in the stage version’s nod to the closing image of the 1960 film, the faces of Audrey II’s victims appear in its blood-red flowers, to sing the final number.

It’s true that theater audiences, even musical-theater audiences, are probably more accustomed to major character casualties than movie audiences might have expected from a 1986 comedy starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, with sparkling cameos from John Candy, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray. Among the big presences on Broadway that decade were Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd, and a remount of West Side Story. (Also Cats, which may have had audiences craving more fatalities.) But Oz’s charge that audiences care less for a character on a stage than on a screen flies in the face of a few thousand years of theatrical tradition—a tradition that, by the way, Little Shop Of Horrors draws on and alludes to in the inclusion of its singing Greek chorus.

More likely, the test audiences were reacting to crucial differences that had nothing to do with the medium, and everything to do with the choices made in the adaptation. In both the stage version and the original 1986 film ending, Audrey’s death scene—complete with poignant, pained reprise of “Somewhere That’s Green”—is genuinely moving. In a touching gesture of self-sacrifice, she urges Seymour to give her body to the plant so they can remain together in a kind of horticultural Liebestod. Accompanied by a majestic instrumental number that would not have been out of place in Menken’s score forThe Little Mermaid three years later—actually a musical callback to “Skid Row”—Seymour cradles Audrey I in a Pietà pose, then tenderly offers her to Audrey II, who brings its jaws down with what uncharacteristic delicacy.

This is the point where the stage and movie versions begin to differ. In the stage version, after Seymour lays Audrey to rest, he confronts the creature—“You’re a monster, and so am I!”—and brings about his own demise via one final futile act of heroism: charging into the plant brandishing a machete, intending to attack it from the inside. In an early version of Ashman’s screenplay, Seymour actually escaped the clutches of Audrey II, only to end up as another poor soul fleeing the rampaging monsters, yelling “They’re here! They’re here!” in homage to the final scenes of 1956’s The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

Not only does the alternate ending rob Seymour of his life and his moment of near-redemption, it does so in the cruelest possible fashion: at the culmination of a rollicking musical number performed by the cackling plant. Unlike Ashman and Menken’s other musical additions to the movie—a perky new bridge for the opening tune, a montage-friendly new version of a track called “Some Fun Now”—“Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” was the result of a calculated attempt to appeal to the singles charts and the Best Song category at the Academy Awards, which requires that a song is written specifically for the movie in question. (The song got its nomination, but lost the Oscar to “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun.) The song feels inessential at best—the closest the otherwise-efficient Little Shop Of Horrors gets to the throwaway sensibility of a novelty musical number on The Muppet Show. While Audrey II’s other tunes are propelled by sinister cravings—the plant’s and Seymour’s—“Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” sacrifices narrative momentum even as it ups the musical tempo.

It is, undoubtedly, a fantastic showcase of puppetry. It was shot over five weeks, with 50 to 70 puppeteers said to have been operating the various bits of Audrey II at any one time. Audrey II’s lip-sync puppeteer Mak Wilson compared working on this final phase of the plant as being like “lifting a piano and doing multiplication tables at the same time.” The plant’s designer, Lyle Conway (no relation to Richard), described it as “like turning mattresses with toothpicks.”

To the test audiences who had just had their hearts broken by the death of Audrey, though, the very showiness of that puppetry would have probably felt like having their faces rubbed in it. Even worse, the helpless Seymour, who’s just endured a four-minute whomping, is then slowly hoisted head-first into Audrey II’s expectant, ghastly mouth. As Seymour disappears, the music evaporates, all the better for the movie to wallow in the sounds of ingestion. The stage version wisely gets this nastiness over and done with, while this movie ending dwells on it with sadism worthy of Orin Scrivello, DDS.

Oz does have a point about the power of close-ups. This whole section of the movie is packed with agonizing close-ups of both Audrey and Seymour in sheer terror as they approach their gruesome deaths. Killing off the characters of a musical comedy is one thing; killing them off in torturously protracted scenes is another. Following this ugliness with overlong scenes (more than four minutes on the Blu-Ray) of the Audrey II apocalypse, while another callously funky number called “Don’t Feed The Plants” plays, surely left test audiences feeling like they were the ones being trodden on.

Now that the pined-for alternate ending has emerged through the topsoil of obscurity, it has begun to feel less and less “alternate”—inevitably obliterating people’s memories of the simple sweetness of the test-audience-approved cut. But considered side-by-side, the alternate version seems to highlight the virtues of the ending we had all along. It may be the 1986 ending, not the much-hyped alternate one, that starts to feel rare and special.

Certainly, there’s an undeniable sense of closure in seeing Seymour get his just desserts—and, in a more literal sense, Audrey II get his—in the alternate ending. It’s the natural satisfaction of the story’s dark themes arriving at a plausibly dark conclusion. But after witnessing the senseless orgy of chaos and destruction, the 1986 version doesn’t seem as sickly, egregiously naïve as it used to. Seeing Seymour and Audrey resurrected and reunited is now more heartwarming than ever. That feeling is enhanced by the realization that those test audiences longed for a feel-good ending not out of feeble-minded selfishness, but out of a genuine conviction that those characters deserved for their story to end in a major rather than minor key.

The 1986 ending of Little Shop of Horrors has been described again and again as a compromise of the filmmakers’ creation. It’s actually a testament to their accomplishment: the brilliant, blossoming results of the seeds of compassion it unknowingly planted in its audiences. It’s great that we now have both intensely contradictory versions, if only to finally appreciate that Little Shop Of Horrors is just fine with a little less horror in store.

This essay originally appeared on The Dissolve.

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