50 years back, 1960
- The deepest point on Earth, Marianas Trench was accessed using a bathyscape Trieste.
- African nations were breaking off their shackles, while Algeria witnessed a bloody uprising against the French.
- Adolf Eichmaan was captured by Mossad and bought to trial.
- Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first woman to be elected as head of Govt.
- A certain Cassius Clay won the heavyweight gold in the Rome Olympics.
In the movie world, it was an exciting times to be. The old order in Hollywood was giving way, most of the directors of the Golden Era- John Ford, King Vidor were slowly reaching the end of their careers. It would be the beginning of a new era, of directors like John Frankenhemier, Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, Stanley Kramer, as also the period when European & British cinema would hit the American shores, that would lead to the emergence of the 70′s brat pack. 1960 had the big budget epics Kubrick’s Spartacus, John Sturges reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s The 7 Samurai into the The Magnificent 7, it was the year when Hitchcock scared women into taking showers with Pyscho, Billy Wilder explored the angst of an average American employee in the satiric The Apartment, it was also the year of Goddard’s Breathless, Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
It was also the year of a little known B&W movie, that combined elements of comedy, camp horror and satire, and has become a cult favorite down the years. It has influenced a Broadway stage play, and a 1986 musical movie version. It featured a very young Jack Nicholson in a small role, that has now become something of a movie folk lore. And it was B-Movie making, at it’s best, incorporating all the elements, cheesy effects, equally cheesy VO’s, whole cast of not so known actors, over the top. The movie i am referring to is the 1960 version of The Little Shop of Horrors. One of the earlier movies to achieve cult status, this movie by now is something every cult fan swears by. Forget about the ratings on IMDB, forget about what the critics say on Rotten Tomatoes, this is in every sense, a true cult movie.
What is the story about?
A small florist shop on Los Angeles skid row is owned by a miserly Jewish owner, Gravis Mushnik( Mel Welles), and it’s a run down place, not doing too greatly, except for one regular customer, Ms. Siddie Shiva( Leola Wendorff), who always seems to be attending some or other funeral, and keeps ordering flowers daily. The only 2 employees in the shop are a sweet, buxom, airhead Audrey Fulquard( Jackie Joseph) and a goofball called Seymour Krelboin( Jonathan Haze). Seymour keeps driving Gravis nutty, with his idiotic ways, his propensity to screw up things. And when he messes up a delivery to the dentist he is fired.
You didn’t mean it. You never mean it. You didn’t mean the time when you put up the bouquet with the ‘get well’ card in the funeral parlor, and sent the black lilies to that old lady in the hospital. You’re fired and this time, I, Gravis Mushnik, mean it!
Desperately seeking to hold on to his job, he tells Mushnick about a special plant, he has bred, a cross between a Venus fly trap and a butterwort. And he names it as “Audrey 2″, after the female employee for whom he has the hots. Seymour is the typical loser, goofy, bumbling and add to it, has to deal with an ailing hypochondriac mother, Winifred. Mushnick is not impressed with the plant, while Audrey is thrilled to know that the plant is named after her, “the biggest honor done to me” she says.
Seymour know begins to take care of the plant, watering it, talking to it. During an incident, when he cuts his finger, he comes to know that the plant loves blood, and then he begins to feed it daily drops of his own blood. The plant keeps growing, on the steady diet of blood it receives from Seymour, who on the other hand, becomes increasingly anemic. In a bizarre twist, Audrey2 becomes an attraction, Mushnick now begins to treat Seymour like a son, all the while Seymour becomming more and more anemic.
Audrey 2 begins now to speak, “Feed Me”, demanding to be fed, Seymour, now is facing loss of blood as he tells the plant “I need some blood for myself”. He takes a walk along the railway tracks, and when a freak incident causes a man to be run over by a train, he takes the body to be fed to the plant. As he feeds the pieces, Mushnick back in the shop to get some money, observes him stuffing the body parts into the plant. Thus begins a never ending nightmare as the plant now begins to increase in size and appetite, turning into a monster.
The Little Shop of Horrors was shot on a shoe string budget of just 30,000 $. And the tackiness shows in every frame, right from the dull B&W print to the rather stagey looking settings, to the B actors, to the hooky looking plant, that far from scaring, looks more campy. In fact though its quite in effect a black comedy, with quite a dark ending, the movie is camp for most of the time. It is cheesy, over the top, tongue in cheek, not to be taken too seriously. And yet for a movie that in effect is B grade, camp horror, it sparkles with some really witty humor and excellent writing.
The theme does echo Frankenstein, in which a person’s creation turns on, and finally ends up destroying him. The Frankenstein here is Audrey 2, which morphs into an out of the control monster, devoring everything that comes into it’s way. The more you feed it, the more it wants. Was this some kind of veiled attack on American style consumerism, the more you have something, the more you want it? If taken in a metaphorical way, i feel Audrey 2, the carnivorous plant, does satirize the American consumer, as it’s wants grow and grow, it becomes larger, it becomes hungrier. In another scene, Musnick, begins to dream about owning a florist store in Beverly Hills, where he could sell the plants at over priced rates. While in one way, the story does pay tribute to the typical American innovativeness and ingenuity, in the same sense, it pokes fun at the American “success at all costs” capitalism, as well as the typical consumerist mentality.
Seymour starts out as loser, begins to win, when his plant, attracts customers, and yet finds his life being destroyed slowly by the same plant. As he says in one scene.
I don’t care what you need. Look what you’ve done, you not only made a butcher out of me but you drove my girl away.
Mushnick is scared of the plant, concerned about it’s capacity for destruction, but does not want to destroy it, as the plant brings in the business for him. Under it’s satire, it’s dark comedy, The Little Shop of Horrors does carry a moralistic fable about Greed ultimately destroying it’s creator.
Not sure though, if all this hidden sub text would be something that fits in with director Roger Corman. One of the most popular B Movie makers, of his time, his earlier work prior to this were such classics like Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Wasp Woman, A Bucket of Blood, and he was the same director behind the biker classic, Wild Angels, that starred Peter Fonda, Diane Ladd and was one of the defining movies of the counter culture movement. He is also noted for his series of movies in the 60′s that starred Vincent Price, and were based on Edgar Allan Poe’s works, The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, House of Usher, Masque of Ligeria. Major leading lights of the 70′s cut their teeth on Corman’s movies, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese (Corman produced Boxcar Bertha one of his earlier directorial efforts).
To all cult movie lovers, i would request to go for the 1960 B&W version of the movie, it is movie making at it’s most passionate. Overcoming constraints of budget, cast & actors, Roger Corman manages to give us a movie that is cheeky, campy, fun, and has an underlying sub text.