Thursday, May 23, 2013

Why the Theatrical Ending to "Little Shop of Horrors" Was the Right One

"Little Shop of Horrors" (the 1986 musical) was on television the other day, and as always when I think of "Little Shop of Horrors" I think of the original ending Frank Oz filmed but never used due to unfavorable audience response. (In fact, according to Wikipedia, it was extremely unfavorable response; the ending got a score of 13 on a 1-100 scale.) The original ending, based on the stage musical, changed drastically from what was eventually released in theaters. For those of you not familiar with the planned ending (it has been around on YouTube now and again, and was on the first release of the DVD before they pulped it after a week or so in stores due to the inferior picture quality of the original footage)...

In this version, Audrey was fatally wounded by Audrey II's attack, and as her last request asked Seymour to feed her to the plant so she could help make his dreams come true. Seymour did as she asked, then prepared to commit suicide--only to stop when he got a proposal to grow cuttings from the plant and sell them in stores (as in the theatrical release.) In this version, though, the salesman has already "taken the liberty" of sneaking a cutting when Seymour wasn't looking, and has a tiny little Audrey II ready and waiting for sale. Seymour goes back to confront Audrey II, as the salesman shouts to his rapidly-receding form, "Hey! We don't need your permission, you know! Our lawyers have told us--you can't copyright a plant!"

From there, events transpire as in the film, with Seymour telling Audrey II that he knows its plans, and the plant launching into 'Mean Green Mother From Outer Space'. But in the original ending, Audrey II eats Seymour at the end of the song (the same fate he meets in the stage version, as well as in the original Corman film.) From there, the chorus goes on to explain that the plants were sold by the thousand to gullible jerks who were suckered into feeding them blood. Now, the plants are on the rampage (lovingly depicted in an absolutely astounding special effects sequence that still holds up today) and are coming after everyone...EVEN YOU! The film ends with Audrey II seemingly bursting through the movie screen, laughing wildly.

This version is now available on a Blu-Ray "Director's Cut", and I'm glad. The original ending had some fantastic miniature work, absolutely stellar for its time and even now, and it deserves to be seen...but frankly, I think that the studio made the right move in forcing Oz to switch to a more upbeat ending. Here's why.

1) It doesn't fit in with the tone of the movie. Up until Audrey dies, the movie is a comedy in the classical sense of the word; the protagonists begin the series in a predicament, and overcome numerous obstacles to escape their predicament while growing in the process as individuals. In the end, a moral order is asserted, with the just rewarded and the villains getting their comeuppance.

Prior to Audrey's death, the movie makes a strong effort to adhere to that structure. Mushnik is made into a less sympathetic character, less "crusty and cantankerous" and more "greedy and abusive", specifically so that his death at the hands of Audrey II will seem deserved. Doctor Scrivello went from being merely a sadistic dentist to a comically brutal dentist, and more than that, an abusive relationship with Audrey was added to his character solely to make you root for him to get chopped up into bits and fed to a killer flytrap. But more significantly, Seymour's role in the deaths was reduced. (In the original film, he killed three people, and while he did have diminished responsibility in all three deaths, they were as a result of his direct action. In the musical, he's more or less just in the right place at the right time when people die.)

But by killing both Audrey and Seymour, the movie abruptly upends that moral structure. Suddenly, the universe is a place where bad things can happen to good people, and there's no justice. It's kind of an unpleasant way to end a movie that's been full of laughs and jokes. And even if you are willing to grant that Seymour deserved his fate (while writing off Audrey as an object lesson to Seymour about the dangers of getting what you want, which denies her agency in a terribly sexist way...)

2) It's too abrupt. If you do want to structure the film as a morality play, with Seymour as an illustration of the dangers of making a deal with the green and thorny devil, you need to show a descent into sin, not a sudden fall off the cliff. Most of the cut numbers from the film are the ones that made Seymour's actions seem more deliberate (he originally had a solo where he sang about being willing to do what he had to do in order to get the material wealth he thought was bringing him Audrey) and more importantly, there's not enough time to absorb the change. The director's cut literally goes from "comedy bickering between Seymour and Audrey II" to "Audrey dead and Seymour standing on a rooftop ready to jump" in under five minutes. That's a hell of a wrench to ask the audience to absorb. And assuming they do...

3) It's surprisingly hectoring and preachy. Because it's not enough that Seymour suffers and dies for his greed in this version, or even that he takes his girlfriend with him. His attempt at redemption by killing the plant he created is rendered meaningless (and as a sub-reason here, it's also remarkably flat from a dramatic point of view--Audrey II spends three minutes singing about how tough and powerful and unstoppable it is, and tough and powerful and unstoppable. You really can't spend that long telling the audience exactly what to expect and still hope they'll be surprised when you give it to them.) Audrey II wins, in every way. And then the final musical number is basically just the chorus telling everyone, "Don't do what Seymour did!" Finishing the story by yelling at the audience for five solid minutes, just after yanking the rug out from under their expected happy ending, makes the movie feel joyless and prudish. It's as though, having spent the preceding 90 minutes telling everyone to have fun and enjoy themselves with the blackly comedic material, the writers suddenly feel the need to punish everyone for doing exactly that. And with a song, that, well...

4) The closing number sucks. Let's face it--'Mean Green Mother From Outer Space' is easily the most memorable song of the whole movie. It's arguably the best. (Although I've got a soft spot for "Dentist!") It is certainly the signature tune of the musical. Following it up with 'Don't Feed the Plants'--a slow, muddy, mumbling dirge that scolds the audience instead of leaving it as your catchy, peppy closing number that everyone walks out humming? Not a good move. And even if it was a good song...

5) The sound mix at the end is horrible. Because they went with the big, epic "killer plants destroy New York" ending instead of the symbolic "everyone's faces appear as flowers to sing about how bad they feel about what they've done" ending, most of the final song is buried under the sound of falling bricks, screeching cars, falling bridges, gunfire and shattering windows. Whatever hope the final song had of having impact is buried right along with it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not 100% satisfied with the filmed ending. Because it was added so late in the process, it's kind of abrupt and choppy. (And the inserted shots of Audrey are clumsy and obvious.) But their mistake was in sticking with the original ending for as long as they did, instead of listening to the studio (who wanted changes at the script stage.) That said, I am glad the original ending is out there.  Not just because we would have lost some amazing effects sequences without it, but also because the theatrical ending somehow seems that much sweeter once you've seen the original. Knowing what Seymour averts with his last-minute heroics makes you all the more grateful that he and Audrey wind up with their happy ending.


Fakefaux said...

Number one is the real killer here. The other issues could have been surmountable; more tragic build up would have made the ending less abrupt, Audrey II wining sort of works as a surprise if you were still expecting Seymour to escape, the final song could have been pepped up, etc. By making Seymour more sympathetic and the people he kills more villainous, though, the story is largely divested of its Faustian pretensions.

And while "Mean Green Mother" and "Dentist" are fantastic, I'm particularly fond of "Skid Row," incidentally one of the few remaining songs that still has the element of tragedy and desperation that was largely cut.

Shefali said...

I recently saw the Director's cut and hated it. Because it turns what is up to then a comedy into an actual horror film... but nothing up to that point prepared one for that! So, I love your review. And this is one of my favorite films. I love the music, the cast, and the witty dark humor.