Little Shop of Horrors (1960) Directed by Roger Corman. Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Jack Nicholson (72 minutes)
Feed me! Nerdy Seymour Krelboine (Jonathan Haze) works in what must surely be the only florist shop on the Bowery. An alien seed invades his cultivation hobby, and the resulting plant displays an unnerving botanical lust for blood. Famously shot in three days (more or less) for $22,000 (or thereabouts) on a single set (with a few pick-up shots) by Schlockmeister Roger Corman, the original non-musical Little Shop of Horrors toggles between scares and laughter. Some familiar faces pepper the low budget cast, including B movie stalwart Dick Miller. Jack Nicholson, a struggling actor in only his third film, sinks his teeth into a cameo as a dental patient who adores the pain of the drill. The black and white film made so little money in its initial release, even though Corman boldly played it at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, that he never copyrighted it, paving the way towards the endless tv showings and midnight movies that enshrined it in cult-movie heaven.
I have a very deep personal connection with Little Shop of Horrors. I grew up in Cleveland, OH, and there was a horror movie host, Ghoulardi, played by studio announcer Ernie Anderson (the father of director Paul Thomas Anderson). He played ultra cheapo horror movies on Friday night at 11:30 on the local CBS affiliate, long after I was sent to bed. My parents used to love watching the show, because in the commercial breaks, he made fun of other local tv personalities (behind a scraggly fake goatee and glasses with one dark lens) and did comedy bits influenced by Ernie Kovacs. One night, I was awakened upstairs by my parents’ laughter in front of the tv. I came down to see what was going on, and my parents let me stay up to watch the end of Little Shop of Horrors. This was a great treat of my childhood.
When my father got older, he became a model and actor in local community theater. His signature role was Mr. Mushnik in the musical version of Little Shop. The portrait painted of him for the play had pride of place in my parents’ home, and now in my brother’s. The family always felt a certain proprietorship of the film, as if we, alone, had discovered it. We reenacted scenes and commanded, “Feed me!
Jonathan Haze, Mel Welles and Jackie Joseph (Audrey, Sr) contemplate Audrey, Jr.
”There are, of course, real carnivorous plants, like the Venus Fly Trap, but they eat insects, nothing larger. Wikipedia traces the history of stories about man eating plants, beginning with a 1932 story called “Green Thoughts”, by John Collier. Perhaps, screenwriter Charles B. Griffith (with help from Roger Corman) were influenced by Arthur C. Clarke’s short story from 1956, “The Reluctant Orchid,” inspired by the 1905 H.G. Wells’ story “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.” The original title was the florid, The Passionate People Eater. Mel Welles said that, even though Corman was reluctant to direct another horror comedy after A Bucket of Blood, “The reason that The Little Shop of Horrors worked is because it was a love project. It was our love project” (Wikipedia).
Dick Miller, who had played the lead in A Bucket of Blood was offered the main role of Seymour in Little Shop, but felt he had already played a part so similar, he declined. “I didn’t think of it as a step up furthering my career. Now, I could kick myself! You think back on all the things you’ve turned down and then said, ‘Oh, God…; It turns out to be a big hit. You win some, you lose some” (Nashawaty 34).
Jonathan Haze was part of the regular Corman stock company, this would be his best remembered role. He said he played Seymour like a dumb gangster he’d once played on stage in Brooklyn U.S.A. At the end of the day, it was another quickie job in a bargain basement Corman film. “I mean you can’t say it was successful because of Roger’s wonderful direction or because the script was so great or because my acting or anybody else’s acting was so great, because it isn’t any of that. It just all happened somehow. If there’s any one factor you can point to I think it’s that the picture is so sleazy. If it had been made by a big studio, I don’t think it would have been the same” (McGee 31). “I liked Little Shop of Horrors of course, because it made me pretty famous.” (Nashawaty 34).
The lore around the filming of Little Shop varies a bit from source to source. It seems that Roger Corman, who was the master of the cheapie drive-in film, challenged himself to shoot a feature film in the time that it usually took to shoot a half hour tv show, three days. He either was given a standing set about to be torn down, or he and his cast and crew hopped the fence at the abandoned Charlie Chaplin Studios (now home of Jim Henson Productions on La Brea in Los Angeles) to save money.
Roger Corman said, “It was actually shot in two days and a night, and all the actors, including Jack, only had one day’s rehearsal. It came about because at one of my other film screenings, there was a moment of horror that made the audience gasp. I thought, that’s perfect. And then, a funny thing happened. Some of them laughed. I thought, what had I done wrong? Then I realized I hadn’t done anything wrong. I had gotten the scream I wanted, and then the audience released the remaining tension by laughing. That’s when I first saw the connection between horror and comedy. I then made a picture called A Bucket of Blood as a comedy, and it was a huge success (Eliot 36).
Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Jonathan Haze and Dick Miller
The film was shot with two camera crews, and a third camera for pick-up shots, kind of like a modern day sitcom, to get different angles from a single performance. Some scenes were ad-libbed, or it was shot strictly according to the script, take your pick. Even writer Griffith remembered that much was ad-libbed. But Mr. Mushnik, Mel Welles asserted, “He doesn’t remember. He wrote every word. The brilliant thing that Chuck did was that he wrote that part for me. We were best friends. And when I used to do my Jewish accent around him I used to have certain expressions. And he knew them all because they broke him up all the time. He incorporated them into the script. I didn’t have to make up one word” (McGee 32).
Exteriors were shot later with $279 of rented equipment by Charles Griffith and Mel Welles. Children were paid a nickel apiece to run out of a subway tunnel, and winos accepted a dime to play themselves on screen. A Southern Pacific railway crew was persuaded for a couple of bottles of Scotch to let them film in a yard, and even backed a locomotive away from a prone actor so the shot of the character’s death could be printed in reverse.
Fred Katz wrote the jazzy score, for A Bucket of Blood. Then, he sold the same score to Corman for Little Shop, The Wasp Woman, Creature from the Haunted Sea and several others, the music rearranged for each one.
Jack Nicholson had only appeared in two other films, including the lead in Corman’s The Cry Baby Killer. Over the years, Corman has taken the credit for discovering Nicholson, and he did play his first lead in the film, but he auditioned and got the part without Corman present. Then, for two years, nothing. Nicholson hung out and went to acting and horseback riding classes and helped out on film sets if he got the chance. He heard about the script for Little Shop and got a copy to read, and auditioned. “But, I wasn’t exactly Roger’s favorite leading man, because other guys were doing movies that—how do I put this?—came out better” (McGilligan 114). He did get the small role of a masochistic dental patient. He only saw his scenes. “Roger took the script apart, and gave me only the pages for my scenes. That way he could give the rest of the script to another actor or actors. That’s was low-budget was like” (Ibid). Corman did not want him for the lead in Little Shop, “I went in to the shoot knowing I had to be very quirky because Roger originally hadn’t wanted me. In other words, I couldn’t play it straight. So I just did a lot of weird shit that I thought would make it funny. (Wikipedia). “We did the take outside the office, and went inside the office, plugged in, lit and rolled. Jonathan Haze was up on my chest pulling my teeth out. And, in the take, he leaned back and hit the rented dental machinery (from Corman’s personal dentist) with the back of his leg, and it started to topple over. Roger didn’t even call out. He leaped onto the set, grabbed the tilting machine, and said, ‘Next, set, that’s a wrap’” (McGillgan 115). And I swear I remember the excitement of seeing Nicholson, right after his fame from Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, in the dentist’s chair, on the Ghoulardi show. But, that might be part of the family Little Shop lore.
Nicholson in the dentist’s chair.
The film’s writer, Charles Griffith, plays four roles, a burglar, a shadow, a dental patient who escapes the office with a bitten ear, and most dramatically, the voice of Audrey, Jr., the plant. During filming, he sat off camera cuing Haze by reading the plant’s lines, with the thought another actor would be dubbed in later. Cast and crew agreed his performance was so funny, his Audrey Jr. should stay.
Screenwriter and Audrey, Jr. voice Charles Griffith sticks up Mel Welles, Mr. Mushnik.
The film was screened out of competition at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival (what nerve Corman has!) but the release was delayed because some of the Jewish humor was flagged as anti-Semitic. This seems overly cautious to me, since the silliness of the characters doesn’t seem to have any denigrating intent. Mel Welles said Mr. Mushnik was never meant to defame anybody. AIP distributed it at the bottom of a double bill with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. Corman did not see it as an income generator after the original release, and he never copywrited it, so it became public domain. This led to many tv showings, and midnight movie screenings, which contributed to its cult status.
Howard Ashman saw Little Shop on tv when he was 14 years old. Years later, he was inspired to turn it into a musical even though his agent thought it was a terrible idea. The Off Broadway musical version (music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman) was produced in 1982. When Corman inked a deal to turn it into a film with Rick Moranis as Seymour in 1986, it gave Corman possibly the biggest profit on any film of his career (McGee 126). It became a popular high school and community theater offering, although the construction of Audrey, Jr., is closely controlled by the copyright.
Rewatching again after many years, what is striking is how intentionally funny it is (with its puns and malapropisms) and how good the acting is. Cheap movies usually have terrible acting, but this is not the case with Little Shop of Horrors.
Martin Scorsese said, “Little Shop of Horrors, which is a movie that’s beyond tongue in cheek, is a film that totally enjoys itself, and the audience is in on the gag. And part of the gag is that it was made in three days! Now, whether you like the film or not, he (Corman) proved that a film can get made in three days. Which when you think about it, is really quite amazing” (Nashawaty 36).
Jack’s Life by Patrick McGilligan, Nicholson by Marc Eliot, Roger Corman: The Best of the Cheap Acts by Mark Thomas McGee, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Shop_of_Horrors, Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movies by Chris Nashawaty.