Little Shop Of Horrors & the Tale of its Lost Ending

The Rick Moranis-headlined version of Little Shop Of Horrors is a special piece of weirdness.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

We should start at the end, seeing as it’s the thing people talk about the most when it comes to Little Shop of Horrors. In one of the most commonly-known pieces of “lost movie” lore, many of you will already be aware that Frank Oz’s 1986 movie adaptation of the cult stage musical (itself an adaptation of the 1960, equally cult Roger Corman movie) made it to cinemas in December 1986 with a completely different ending from the one that had originally been shot. Rather than the bleak ending in which loveable nerd Seymour and his beloved Audrey are eaten by the fearsome Audrey II plant, which then breeds into a super-race of giant plants that dominate the globe, the amended movie ending instead sees Seymour destroy the plant and happily marry Audrey.

It sounds like typical Hollywood sanitizing, and in the years since the movie was released the legendary status of this alternate ending – not to mention the sheer amount of money that was spent on making it before it was ditched – has certainly fostered that view among some. But how did Little Shop Of Horrors get to that stage? Why did it originally have the ending that it did, and why did it change? And, perhaps the biggest question that has hung over the film these past three decades: should it have been changed, or not?

The Little Shop of Horrors story begins with that 1960 Corman movie, which was famously shot almost entirely over just two days, when the director was given access to some standing sets from a previous film just before they were pulled down. Written by Corman’s long-time cohort Charles B. Griffith, The Little Shop Of Horrors was a black farce, notable also for a debut appearance by Jack Nicholson, and the fact that Corman didn’t copyright the film, meaning that it has been in the public domain ever since its initial theatrical run.

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These latter two points may help explain why the film became something of a cult classic in the 1970s; although it doesn’t quite explain why a writer and composer pair named Howard Ashman and Alan Menken decided to take the bizarre step of adapting it into a stage musical. Ashman and Menken would go on to have many successful collaborations together – winning Oscars for their work on The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast before Ashman’s death in 1991 – but the Little Shop of Horrors musical was their first big hit.

The stage show opened in 1982 as an Off-Off-Broadway production, before transferring to Off-Broadway (a full Broadway show was considered, but Ashman and Menken felt it was better-suited to the smaller theatres). Where the original film saw the hapless Seymour accidentally stumble his way into murder, the musical more explicitly takes on the shape of the Faust myth – with the plant (renamed Audrey II from the original’s Audrey Jr.) promising the nerdy schlub fame, fortune, and the love of his human namesake if he goes along with feeding him.

The musical plays fair by narrative rules, in giving Seymour his comeuppance at the end. In the stage show, as in the original film, while he’s ostensibly the “hero” Seymour is a largely pathetic and not especially likeable figure. The audience is therefore invited, just like in Faust, to approve of his downfall – even though, in this case, his actions have the unfortunate side-effect of unleashing a wave of man-eating plants across the world.

While much of the humor in the original film had arisen almost unintentionally as a result of the slapdash production, Ashman and Menken’s musical successfully blends the dark and bleak nature of the story – and its ending – with jaunty, upbeat rock and Motown-styled musical numbers and surreal gags. The songs showcase the pair’s effortless knack for a memorable tune, and it was no surprise that the play was an immediate hit, winning several awards and becoming one of the longest-running and highest-grossing shows in Off-Broadway history.

Equally inevitable, then, was the musical’s adaptation back to the screen – but the nature and scale of the production were still something of a surprise. David Geffen, one of the producers of the original show, initially sounded out Martin Scorsese about directing, but plans to shoot the film in 3D ultimately fell through, and in the end Frank Oz was approached. A budget of $25 million put it towards the top level of films Warner Bros were releasing at that time, and was an enormous show of faith in the source material and its ability to become a mainstream hit.

Oz’s adaptation skewed closely to the original stage show – helped by retaining Howard Ashman as screenwriter. While the director initially struggled to find a “cinematic” way into the material, the large soundstages at Pinewood offered the opportunity to create an aesthetic that was theatrical in both senses of the word: merging both the stage and the screen, with a ramshackle, run-down vision of 1960s Skid Row living that seems to only exist in film, presented with no small amount of artifice. While big-name stars such as Cyndi Lauper and (purportedly) Barbara Streisand were considered for Audrey, Ellen Greene was invited to reprise her role from the stage show; while Rick Moranis was an early lock for Seymour.

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But while the two leads would end up being one of the film’s greatest strengths, they would also present it with one of its biggest problems.

With the odd alteration here and there – a couple of the original songs are dropped, as is an entire subplot about Mushnik adopting Seymour in order to try and get hold of the rights to Audrey II – the movie follows the sequence of the stage show faithfully. Additions include masochistic dental patient Arthur Denton, with Bill Murray reprising a similar role to that originally played by Nicholson for a single scene in which he adlibbed the entirety of his dialogue; and John Candy in another memorable one-scene turn as a radio DJ. “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” a new song written to adhere to Oscar eligibility rules, is added to the climax (the song shares a few elements with, though is stylistically quite different from, a track called “Bad” that was trialled but ultimately dropped from the original stage show). It didn’t win, though, losing out to Top Gun’s “Take My Breath Away.”

Watch Little Shop of Horrors on Amazon

And then we get to that ending. Ashman and Oz shared a vision that the film should remain faithful to the stage show’s Faustian denouement – but in a movie, they were able to fully realise the horror of the alien plants’ domination of the world rather than merely describing it in song (the closer “Don’t Feed the Plants”). A full fifth of that $25 million budget was committed to an astonishing closing sequence that saw gigantic plants wreaking havoc across the city of New York destroying beautifully-wrought model buildings, and culminated in the original Audrey II triumphantly laughing atop the Statue of Liberty.

Unfortunately, without their realizing it, something else had happened over the course of the film. Moranis’ inherent likeability had turned Seymour into a more sympathetic character; and his chemistry with the impossible-not-to-love Greene as Audrey meant that the audience reached the final act fully rooting for these two kids to escape their terrible situation. Sure, Seymour had been feeding people to a carnivorous plant – but he doesn’t actually kill either Orin or Mushnik, and in both cases they’re threatening him first.

And so, completely against the expectations of its writer and director, Little Shop’s ending was utterly loathed by the film’s initial test audiences. “For every musical number there was applause, they loved it, it was just fantastic,” Oz later recalled, “until we killed our two leads. And then the theater became a refrigerator, an ice box. It was awful.”

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The score cards, which give an approval percentage based on the audience’s reactions coming out, told a similar story.

“You have to have a 55 percent ‘recommend’ to really be released… and we got a 13. It was a complete disaster.”

“After that San Jose screening, I asked if we could try one more time in LA to see if the reaction was different. We did it, and we got exactly the same reaction: like 16 per cent or something. Howard and I knew what we had to do: We had to cut that ending and make it a happy ending, or a satisfying ending. We didn’t want to, but we understood they couldn’t release it with that kind of a reaction. Audiences loved the two leads so much that when we killed them, they felt bereft.”

And so the entire closing sequence – from the moment Audrey is eaten by her namesake just prior to “Mean Green Mother,” right through to the final shot – was ditched. Instead, Seymour successfully destroys the plant at the end of the climactic song, and we fade to a sequence in which the couple move into the dream house Audrey had envisioned earlier in the film – although there’s a minor sting in the tail as the final shot is of a tiny, grinning Audrey II-style plant in the garden.

The reshoots also added a James Belushi cameo, as the scene featuring the unscrupulous agent Patrick Martin needed to be rewritten and original actor Paul Dooley was unavailable (also not available for the reshoot was one of the ‘Greek chorus’ singers, Tisha Campbell – and so her character’s face is hidden in the closing shot).

While more palatable to a wider audience, the “softer” ending was seen as unsatisfying by many, especially those familiar with the original source material. It didn’t stop the movie becoming a hit – returns were only modest on its initial theatrical run, but it flourished in the home video market. Its reputation grew and grew in the decade that followed – but as it did, so too did the legend of its ‘lost’ ending, particularly due to the manner in which so much expensive footage had been so unceremoniously chopped and ditched, rather than perhaps being repurposed in some way (for example as a dream or fantasy sequence).

This legend was only heightened further by the film’s first DVD release, in 1998. Somehow, an unfinished, black-and-white workprint of the ending made it onto the initial pressings of the disc – causing a panicked recall by Geffen, who assured fans that the footage did exist in a higher-quality format, and would eventually be released in that form. But while the erroneous copies began to change hands for exorbitant prices, the prospects of ever seeing the finale sequence looked dimmer and dimmer – it later transpired that the footage wasn’t where everybody thought it was, and Oz was insistent that it had been destroyed entirely.

Happily, archive reels were later discovered that enabled the sequence to be painstakingly reconstructed and digitally remastered, and so the Director’s Cut Blu-ray that was released in 2012 featured an edition of the film with those closing five minutes (including Dooley’s version of the prior scene) present as intended. Finally, we had the opportunity to compare the two, and see for ourselves that the original version was better.

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Or did we?

There’s no denying that those closing few minutes are an astonishing piece of film – the $5 million of budget is right there onscreen, with some of the greatest model effects work you will ever see. It’s a beautiful, terrifying orgy of destruction – and if viewed purely in isolation it can be enjoyed as such.

(It also features a quite, quite brilliant final shot: after the climactic shot of Audrey II on the Statue of Liberty, there’s a final sting in the tale: as a “THE END?” caption pops up, the screen suddenly rips in two as the plant bursts through, cackling away. You can imagine cinema audiences being genuinely startled by this, although for obvious reasons it doesn’t have quite the same effect on a home release.)

But if you watch the ending actually as the end of the 90 minutes or so that have preceded it: well, in my view the test audiences sort of had a point. The entirety of Little Shop Of Horrors does, it’s true, have this slightly unpleasant undercurrent; it’s the blackest of black comedies, set in a bleak world where people like Orin Scrivello get to exist and be nasty to people. But right from the “Suddenly Seymour” song onwards, it introduces an element of hope – and it carries you along on a wave of wanting Moranis and Greene to succeed.

The “dark” ending undercuts that entirely; and while there are doubtless many viewers who like that it does, it’s understandable that many more probably would not have. What’s more, that closing sequence – as technically impressive as it is – really does go on a bit, and could also be accused of going a little too far in terms of the horrors it inflicts on the city’s populace.

For my money, anyway, the bigger loss in terms of cut footage is the full “The Meek Shall Inherit” song. It does exist in the film in very shortened form, but was originally intended to include a full-length dream sequence as Seymour agonises over whether to go all-in on his Faustian pact. It’s one of the best songs in the show – and a great performance by Moranis – and it’s a shame that unlike the ending, it hasn’t yet been recovered in particularly good quality. Arguably, if Ashman and Oz hadn’t felt so burned by the rejection of the ending, they could even have worked some of that expensive footage into this scene, with Seymour envisioning a horrible future if he goes ahead with the deal.

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Whichever ending you prefer, however, what’s hard to dispute is that Little Shop of Horrors, thirty years on, remains one of the most tremendously entertaining movie musicals ever produced. The songs don’t have a duff one among them (well, if you don’t count the cod-calypso of “Some Fun Now”), the cast are uniformly great (we haven’t even got as far as mentioning Steve Martin’s scene-stealing turn as Orin or Levi Stubbs’ peerless voicing of Audrey II, nor the cameos from the likes of Christopher Guest and Miriam Margolyes), and it’s a visual triumph, from that distinctive aesthetic to the uniformly brilliant Audrey II puppet and stop-motion work.

It’s a film whose qualities remain utterly timeless, and while its creators may have felt distinctly unsatisfied by having to change that ending, we should be grateful that the version that made it out to cinemas was one that didn’t just sink without trace – but instead remains something so many of us have been able to discover and love in the decades since.

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