Thursday, May 26, 2022

Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

This post is part of the The Cormanverse Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweedgiemidget Reviews

Little Shop of Horrors
(1960) remains one of the best known films directed by Roger Corman. Part of this may be due to the popular musical based upon the movie (itself later adapted as a film), but much of it may be due to the fact that it proved to be a surprise hit at the box office. Repeatedly aired on television since its release, it would also develop a cult following it maintains to this day.

Little Shop of Horrors (1960) centres on Seymour Krelborn (Jonathan Haze), a meek clerk working in a florist shop owned by Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles). Also working in the florist shop is Audrey Fulquard (Jackie Joseph),  the girl of Seymour's dreams. Inept and clumsy, Seymour is not a particularly good employee, but he manages to insure security in his job when he tells Mr. Mushnick about an unusual plant he has grown from seeds he bought from "...Japanese gardener over on Central Avenue." Seymour named the plant "Audrey Jr.," after his beloved Audrey. While unusual, the plant is also rather sickly, and Mr. Mushnick gives Seymour only one week to revive the plant or he is fired. Unfortunately, Seymour soon learns the plant requires blood. As Audrey Jr. gets more blood, the plant begins to thrive.   As one might expect given this is a horror movie, Audrey Jr. soon requires entire human beings, which Seymour hesitantly provides. By the way, Audrey Jr. also turns out to be sentient, very intelligent, and very demanding.

Little Shop of Horrors (1960) is well known for the speed with which it was filmed. According to legend, the manger of Producer's Studio, where many of American International Pictures movies were filmed, told Roger Corman that another film was about to finish shooting and the sets would be left standing for a brief period. Roger Corman's brother Gene then bet him that he couldn't shoot a film in two days with those sets. Mel Welles, who played Mr. Mushnik in the film, claims there is no truth to this legend. Instead, while Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was shot on sets left over from another film, Roger Corman had another reason for shooting the movie so swiftly. On January 1 1960 residuals would have to paid to actors for all films made after that date. Roger Corman then wanted to shoot his next film before the start of the new year in order to avoid paying residuals.

Regardless, Little Shop of Horrors was meant to be a follow up to Bucket of Blood and it was both planned and shot quickly. For Roger Corman's prospective new movie, screenwriter Charles B. Griffith proposed a plot in which a music critic becomes a vampire. Roger Corman turned that proposal down, and Mr. Griffith then proposed a plot in which a salad chef cooks up meals using his regular customers. Roger Corman pointed out that this would run into problems with the Production Code, which at the time strong disapproved of anything touching upon cannibalism. Charles B. Griffith then suggested a man-eating plant. Charles B. Giffrth wanted to write what would become Little Shop of Horrors as a horror comedy, but given the poor box office performance of Bucket of Blood, Roger Corman was initially against it. Fortunately, Mr. Griffith was able to convince Mr. Corman to do another horror comedy. Initially, what would become Little Shop of Horrors was titled The Passionate People Eater.

Given how quickly Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was made, it should come as no surprise that the cast was filled by some actors who had regularly appeared in Roger Corman's movies. Roger Corman offered the role of Seymour to Dick Miller, but he turned it down as being too similar to his role in Bucket of Blood. He ultimately took the smaller role of florist shop customer Burson Fouch. The role of Seymour ultimately went to Jonathan Haze, who had already appeared in several of Roger Corman's movies Gunslinger (1956), Not of This Earth (1957), and Rock All Night (1957). Mel Welles, who was cast as Mr. Mushnick, had already appeared in such Roger Corman movies as Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), The Undead (1957), and Rock All Night (1957). As hard as it might be to believe, Nancy Kulp (now best known as Jane Hathsway on The Beverly Hillbillies) was in the running for the role of Audrey that went to Jackie Joseph. Jonathan Herman Shaner, who played Oscar in Bucket of Blood, played the sadistic dentist Dr. Farb. Jack Nicholson played the role of masochistic dentist patient Wilbur Force. Of course he would go onto become a regular in Roger Corman's films. Screenwriter Charles B. Griffith provided the voice of Audrey Jr.  off screen as a reference for the actors. It was planned that his voice would be overdubbed with that of an actor later on. As it turned out, that never happened, so that in the completed film it is an uncredited Charles B. Griffith voicing Audrey Jr.

As Roger Corman had planned, Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was shot very quickly. Roger Corman filmed the movie during the last week of December 1959. Rehearsals unfolded over three days, with principal photography taking only two days and one night. Three days were then spent on second unit work and pick up shots. The film was shot using three cameras running at the same time, a method of filming even then used on television sitcoms. The budget of Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was low even for Roger Corman. It only cost around $30,000.

Initially, Roger Corman had difficulty finding distribution for Little Shop of Horrors (1960) because it was viewed by some exhibitors as anti-Semitic due to Mel Welles's portrayal of Mr. Mushnick, as well as the character of Siddie Shiva (Leola Wendorff). It was nine months after it was completed that Little Shop of Horrors was finally released. When American International Pictures picked up the American distribution rights for Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1960), it was paired with Little Shop of Horrors (1960) on a double bill. Word of mouth then spread about Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and it would later be released on a double bill with AIP's Last Woman on Earth (1960).

Roger Corman had little hope for the success of Little Shop of Horrors (1960) in its initial release and had even less hope of it doing well after its initial run in theatres. For that reason he did not bother to copyright the film and as a result it entered the public domain. Regardless, Little Shop of Horrors (1960) would only grow in reputation as the years passed, with the film being shown often on television. By 1982 the popularity of Little Shop of Horrors (1960) as such that a stage musical was produced Off-Off-Broadway before moving a few months later Off-Broadway. A movie adapted from the musical was released in 1986.

Made cheaply and quickly, Little Shop of Horrors (1960) has maintained its reputation over the years. At Rotten Tomatoes it has an approval rating of 92% from twelve critics. Being in public domain, there are numerous VHS and DVD releases of varying quality. A restored version of the film, along with a colourized version, was released on DVD by Legend Films in 2006. Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was a film that Roger Corman thought would do poorly at the box office and would be forgotten quickly. For once, Roger Corman was wrong.


Realweegiemidget Reviews said...

Thanks for adding this film to our blogathon, it's one of my faves with Jack Nicholson so was interesting to read more on the behind the scenes story.

Brian Schuck said...

Great background stories on this weird little film! The proposed title, The Passionate People Eater, made me smile, but I can see why it was rejected. What a strange double-bill combo, Bava's Black Sabbath and Little Shop! (But I suppose kids didn't go to the drive-in to see the movies... :) It's a familiar story, isn't it, creators not realizing the worth of their work at the time, and letting it slip into the public domain, or losing the master, or whatever! Doesn't seem like something Roger would do...

Barry P. said...

Great review, Terence, chock-full of interesting facts about the production. Although 2 days was a bit of an exaggeration, I guess Corman wasn't too far off the mark. All things considered, it's an amazing effort. Thanks for joining the Corman-verse Blogathon!

MichaelWDenney said...

Interesting back stories. I wasn't aware that Dick Miller was offered the lead. Strange that he turned it down out of a typecasting concern. But even harder to believe is that Corman would ever risk not squeezing every last dollar out of a film and thus fail to copyright it.

Rebecca Deniston said...

This is so interesting. Wonder what Corman thought of the musical.