Monday, January 14, 2013

Defending the Movie Ending of Little Shop of Horrors

I was in college when Little Shop of Horrors received its first DVD release.  DVDs were still a newish thing, but I was an early adopter of the technology.  For financial reasons, I had a personal policy that I wasn't going to buy a DVD of a movie I already had on VHS, so Little Shop was out.  Not only did I have a VHS copy of the movie, but the tape was pretty new since I had only recently rediscovered the film after the (mild) childhood trauma it had caused.

Boy, did I miss the boat on that DVD.  A bonus feature on that first run of discs was a 20-minute "original ending" where -- and I guess this is where the SPOILER ALERT goes -- the evil plants kill Audrey, then Seymour, then everyone else on planet Earth.

What?!  This was the first I'd ever heard of an "original ending."  Despite growing up in a musical theater-appreciating family, I'd never been exposed to the stage version of Little Shop.  My only knowledge of the show was the movie.  And in the movie, Audrey escapes from the plant and Seymour manages to destroy it.

Depending who you ask, either Warner Bros. or producer David Geffen felt it was a mistake to put the alternate ending footage on the DVD (especially since it was worn out, murky, black and white workprint footage) and had the discs recalled.  If it hadn't been for my "no re-buying" policy, I would have been in possession of a valuable collectors item.

Until October of last year, that is, when the blu ray was released with a fully restored Director's Cut of the film.

Although the director's ending has been available on YouTube for years, I'd never seen it.  And I'd never had access to a stage production either.  This alternate ending remained nothing but a vaguely described "everybody dies" scenario to me until I got the blu ray for Christmas and, disregarding the children in the room and ignoring the ongoing holiday festivities, began watching it immediately.

So, how did the new-old ending pan out?

Much like the test audiences of 1986, I had an uncomfortable reaction to it.  Even worse were the vibes I could feel coming from the family members who had accumulated to watch the movie with me.  At least I'd known what to expect, and was viewing it as an academic curiosity.  For them, it was a fun and familiar story suddenly exploding in their faces.

After that initial DVD release, the word was out about the everybody-dies ending of the movie, so I felt I was plenty prepared for it.  Over the years, it had even started to make sense to me.  Little Shop is a dark story, a homage to the B-movies of a previous age where cheap shocks and thrills pretty much guaranteed a 100% mortality rate.  All that was left for me to discover was exactly how Audrey and Seymour would die.  And that's precisely my problem with this ending.  It's not so much the fact of them dying, but the how.

In both versions of the movie, the plant tricks Audrey into being in the shop alone with him, where he proceeds to bite her.  I'd always assumed that that would be where she dies, but it's not.  Seymour pulls her out of the plant's mouth, and takes her to safety behind the shop.  But it's too late.  Her injuries are too great, and she knows she's doomed.

This is where things take a crazy turn.  As Audrey lays dying, she tells Seymour that she's happy for all the success he's been having.  And she rationalizes that, since she's dead either way, she'd like Seymour to feed her to the plant so that the plant will remain healthy and continue to bring wealth and prosperity to Seymour.

And he does.  He feeds her to the plant!

This does not make sense; I don't care how cynical your view of humanity is.  By this point in the story, Seymour's already come to despise the plant.  He knows it's evil, and he wants nothing more to do with it.  He's plotted his escape with Audrey.  He's already packed his suitcases!  You're telling me that after the plant has murdered the love of Seymour's life -- an act which would make me, for one, hate the plant even more than I already did (which was already a lot) -- Seymour's going to respect Audrey's wishes and donate her body to the plant's well-being?  Personally, I'd probably take that as an opportunity to start starving the plant.  That plan probably wouldn't work, but at least I wouldn't be desecrating my loved one's body for the benefit of her murderer.

Am I taking this too seriously?  Obviously!  But if director Frank Oz was wondering why the test audiences went cold at this point in the movie, I'd suggest that it's not only because their heroes were dying.  (That's certainly a tough thing for audiences to take sometimes, but there are plenty of instances of a hero's death being embraced by audiences.)  It's because there's a logic incongruity there.  Why would Seymour do that?  He wouldn't.

Seymour's death is easier to accept, I think.  It was always a stretch that he won in the first place.  The plant was way more powerful.  In the "happy ending" version of the movie, we accept that Seymour had earned his victory, even if it seemed unlikely.

After Seymour's death, the movie goes into an extended rampage sequence.  The plant has multiplied, and we see the plants demolishing everything, terrorizing and eating all the people.  This footage, which was painstakingly restored for this edition, looks great.  One of the greatest aspects of Little Shop of Horrors has always been the spectacular practical effects.  This movie was made in a pre-digital age, and even the use of optical printer effects was minimal.  When you're watching the movie, you're watching things that were happening right there on the sets and in the miniatures.

The problem with this sequence is that it gets very repetitive.  The plant only really has one move: bursting its pod-head through walls.  We see that six times in four minutes, along with lots and lots of people running and screaming.  It's fun at first, but then we see it over and over again.  And over again.

I did appreciate the classic B-movie "The end?!?" card, followed by a plant ripping through a movie screen.  Even watching it in my living room, I was impressed with how realistic the lighting of the "movie theater-within-the-movie" was.  You can tell what it would look like watching that moment in an actual movie theater, and the effect would be impressive.  I actually hope I get to watch this ending on the big screen some day.

Frank Oz has long lamented the loss of the truly awe-inspiring model work by department head Richard Conway on this sequence.  And he's right.  It deserves to be seen.  Such chaotic, witty destruction has its place.  (You're talking to a huge fan of another dark, anarchic David Geffen production from the '80s, Beetlejuice.)

But through it all, I just don't buy this ending on this story.  Maybe it's because I'm too conditioned to expect the happy ending, having seen that version dozens of times at this point.  Maybe it's because I just can't stomach the heroes dying.

But I'd like to give myself more credit than that.  I've been a movie obsessive since at least my early teens.  I went through my Arty Film Student phase where I expected -- nay, demanded! -- that every movie have a downer ending.  At this point, I've spent the better part of my life focused on stories and storytelling and storytelling-through-moving-images.  So, while I appreciate what the filmmakers were going for with the original ending -- the B-movie, Godzilla-style mass destruction -- I ultimately feel it didn't work for this movie.

Considering that Frank Oz and his creative team were reluctant to shoot a new ending, I'm amazed with what they came up with.  It's such a perfect punchline that I can barely believe it wasn't always what they intended.  Seymour has defeated the plant, he and Audrey get married, and they move into the cookie-cutter suburban home she always dreamed of.  But as the camera pulls away from the home and pans down to the landscaping, we see a new evil plant waiting patiently to ruin Seymour and Audrey's lives.  It smiles at us.  I hope Oz takes some comfort in the fact that his wickedly dark vision for this movie was preserved.

The great news about this blu ray edition is that it contains both versions of the movie, and both have their place.  The play's purists who've long lamented the movie's happy ending now have their ideal version.  The restoration is seamless, the recovered footage integrating perfectly into the rest of the film.  The puppetry and the models in the restored ending are fantastic.  As I said, I hope I have the chance to see this version of the movie on a big screen some day.  (Hey, three years and they can do a 30th anniversary re-release.)

But when I'm at home, with a bowl of popcorn, in the mood to watch the story of that quaint little flower place down on skid row, nine times out of 10 I'm going to switch my blu ray player to the version that ends somewhere that's green.

The long, arduous process of finding the footage and restoring the original ending
A brilliant, thorough deconstruction of the "Downtown (Skid Row)" sequence

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