When I find myself wilting — likely from the catastrophic combo of the soul-crushing news cycle, my unhealthy obsession with productivity, and assorted recurring mental health issues — I start craving one thing and one thing only: the 1986 film version of Little Shop of Horrors.
Frank Oz’s big screen adaptation of the hit Broadway show (itself an adaptation of a ’60s film by genre icon Roger Corman) follows a sweet, but meek florist named Seymour (played by everyone’s favourite dork Rick Moranis) who finds supernatural success after purchasing a suspiciously bloodthirsty plant (Audrey II, voiced by Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops). While undoubtedly macabre at its core, the film is the cinematic equivalent of a shot of adrenaline, delighting every one of your senses with technicolour costumes, fantastically realistic SFX, and catchy songs about life, death and, well, guys who look like plant food. It is a comforting reminder that life can be both dark and depressing, and bright and wonderful at the same time.
“Audrey is much more than some sort of seductive stereotype — she is actually quite layered, a fact that comes through in the ways she chooses to present herself to the world.”
There’s one character in Little Shop of Horrors (1986) that best personifies its darkly comedic tone and that is the always bewitching (and sometimes bewildered) Audrey (played by Ellen Greene, who originated the role on Broadway and continues to kill it to this day). A coworker of Seymour’s at Mushnik’s Flower Shop in Skid Row, New York, Audrey is not your traditional side character or love interest. She is given her own tragic backstory and motivations, which are showcased through multiple solo numbers and a killer wardrobe from award-winning costume designer Marit Allen (Don’t Look Now, the 1990 version of The Witches).
When Audrey first appears early in the film, she seems like another Marilyn Monroe wannabe, her soft speaking voice and long-sleeved, figure-hugging little black dress evoking the late actress who is remembered for her timeless beauty and breathy intonation. But just like Monroe, Audrey is much more than some sort of seductive stereotype — she is actually quite layered, a fact that comes through in the ways she chooses to present herself to the world.
For one, Audrey dates a man she calls a “semi-sadist”: the drug-addicted and downright dastardly dentist Orin Scrivello (played with zany zeal by a wig-wearing Steve Martin). She often comes into Mushnik’s with evidence of Orin‘s abuse, including black eyes and even broken arms, which she tries mainly unsuccessfully to cover with heavy eye makeup, red lipstick and creative accessories (one scene sees her using a scarf as a sling). And yet, even on the days when she looks like she’s had it particularly rough, Audrey comes in with her platinum blonde head held high and a smile on her made-up face, as if nothing is wrong.
Although she certainly has a few classic pieces in her wardrobe, Audrey isn’t the biggest fashion plate of Skid Row. The most stylish characters in the film are, by far, ’60s girl group-evoking trio Chiffon (Tisha Campbell), Ronette (Michelle Weeks) and Crystal (Tichina Arnold). Designed to be the film’s Greek chorus, these three women provide the viewer with context and comic relief, both visually and musically.
When Chiffon, Ronette and Crystal‘s purpose is more fantastical than practical, they can get away with experimenting with fun patterns and bold palettes, donning matching outfits as they belt out on the streets and roofs of Skid Row. Audrey, meanwhile, is constantly living in her dark truth, too emotionally wounded to dare step outside of her clothing comfort zone. Her closet is clearly stocked with assorted body-conscious dresses in a basic palette of whites, blacks and the occasional animal print.
Sadly, Audrey‘s signature silhouette and colour palette isn’t her own — it’s the look that the possessive Orin likes best and thus, the one she feels she must stick to. Even when she builds up the courage to wear something more fun and whimsical (see: the stunning rose-lined off-the-shoulder number she’s seen wearing while working at Mushnik’s one day), she makes sure to change into something more suited to Orin‘s taste (see also: the long-sleeved leopard dress she’s in later that day).
Audrey also mentions that in order to make ends meet, she works night shifts at The Gutter, a nightclub where another man (presumably, anyway) forces her to wear “cheap, tasteless outfits” for show. This, of course, is where she initially met Orin. In her life on Skid Row, Audrey is constantly shrinking herself to fit in, or at the very least, to stop herself from standing out. But through her solo number “Somewhere That’s Green” we learn that she dreams of a life without Orin, often picturing herself happily married to that “cutie” Seymour (“well, if not, he’s got inner beauty”) in the suburbs. In this imagined reality, she says can not only “cook like Betty Crocker” but also “dress like Donna Reed.”
For those who may not be familiar, Donna Reed was an actress best known for playing a homemaker on — what else? — The Donna Reed Show (1958 – 1966). On that sitcom, Reed was often seen in patterned A-line dresses with high collars, the same sort of styles that Audrey flounces around in during her “Somewhere That’s Green” fantasies.
When you look back, Reed wasn’t exactly groundbreaking in a sartorial sense, adhering to some of the mainstream fashion trends that continue to be associated with the era that made her famous. But to Audrey — a woman who has spent her life scraping by on minimum wage and the rotten affections of well-to-do, but toxic men — stay-at-home mom Reed seems downright rebellious, taking up space in her full skirts and daytime pearls.
Underneath it all, Audrey is a sweet and simple woman who has a real passion for life and hope for a brighter future for both herself and those she cares about. Her tough-girl chic look is just an act, a defense mechanism that helps her survive her current reality until she can, hopefully, live out her pastel-coloured fantasy with the man of her daydreams.
“[…] to Audrey […] stay-at-home mom [Donna] Reed seems downright rebellious, taking up space in her full skirts and daytime pearls.”
Throughout the film, Seymour tries his best to lift up his work crush and help her come out of her hard outward shell. He constantly compliments her, even asking her to take him shopping for clothes at one point (“I don’t have good taste like you,” he says). And in his signature duet with Audrey (“Suddenly, Seymour”), he encourages her to “take off [her] mascara and wipe [her] lipstick away.”
That last moment could be read as Nice Guy pandering, with Seymour finding a less obvious way to control Audrey than Orin did. But coming from Moranis, who brings an innate gentleness to Seymour, it feels more genuine than gross. His Seymour just wants Audrey to know that she deserves to be loved no matter what she’s wearing, which is likely something she’s never been told — never mind shown — before.
Unfortunately, just as Seymour and Audrey are on track to run off into the proverbial sunset, tragedy strikes. After Seymour feeds Orin and Mr. Mushnik (the original Death Wish‘s Vincent Gardenia) to a hungry Audrey II, the plant grows even bigger and bolder than before and comes after the woman that inspired its name.
There are multiple endings to Little Shop of Horrors (1986), including the theatrical version where, after blowing up Audrey II, Audrey and Seymour escape to the “Somewhere That’s Green” of her mind. But the better ending is the one seen in the director’s cut, the one where Audrey and Seymour both fall prey to something that’s green. In a wonderfully dark twist, Audrey II devours the star-crossed lovers and goes on to takeover the world (“Whatever they offer you, don’t feed the plants!“).
Apparently, test audiences didn’t love the unhappy ending (also seen in the Broadway show), which is why it was nixed for the film’s initial release. But I think it’s the perfect finale, particularly when it comes to Audrey. In this version, Audrey dies as she would have liked to have lived: in a white, lacy A-line dress, the kind of dress she might have worn to marry Seymour. Like any houseplant starved of sunlight, just as she was about to blossom, she perished.
Sure, it would have been nice to see Audrey follow in the footsteps of Audrey II, growing stronger and stronger until she was able to, well, branch out, and design her own plant-free Donna Reed destiny with Seymour. But Little Shop of Horrors is the kind of musical that takes its fantasy with a big dose of reality. And in reality, Audrey and Seymour may not have been afforded a chance to escape, even with their abusers out of the picture. After all, they live in a capitalist society not unlike our own where the poor folks are forced to stay poor — at least until they have something that the middle and upper class might find curious enough to buy.
“In [the original ending], Audrey dies as she would have liked to have lived: in a white, lacy A-line dress, the kind of dress she might have worn to marry Seymour.”
Sometimes in life, you get the opportunity to live (and sing) out your biggest dreams, wearing and doing whatever you please. Other times, life simply eats you for breakfast. What makes Little Shop of Horrors (1986) so special is that it feeds into both possibilities, offering out-of-this-world drama through the eyes of characters like Audrey, characters who are rooted in real life and thus, breed natural sympathy.
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