I’m reeling a little.
This morning, I was lecturing about screenwriting in general (and pleasing your audience in particular) and I mentioned the 1986 version of Little Shop of Horrors. I spoke about that notorious test screening where the “Would you recommend to a friend?” cards allegedly came back with only 13% of affirmatives, dictating that the original “Everybody Dies” ending got the chop and a new, cheerier ending was added to the flick. I spoke about the pros and cons of tailoring your product to the whims of your audience. I spoke about whether a black comedy needs to end like a black comedy, or whether it can give the audience a happy ending without compromising its moral integrity.
I spoke about all of these things with mixed feelings, because I’m a massive Little Shop of Horrors fan who is also a deleted scenes obsessive and yet my feelings about that original ending are decidedly muddled.
Frank Oz has spoken quite eloquently about the problem with the original ending, in terms of the way that theatre and film pack very different kinds of punches. The power of the close-up, man; we see Audrey’s eyes welling up as she pictures Somewhere That’s Green and, Goddammit, we want that character to get her happy ending. Audrey and Seymour dying in the version that has now been released as the Director’s Cut is still a serious bummer, and following it up with what feels like *endless* footage of the planet getting destroyed means that the ending feels drawn-out and kind of mean spirited. What plays as an upbeat black joke in the theatre feels downbeat when stretched out so far. Having been delighted to get hold of this ‘Director’s Cut’ initially, I’ve now watched it a bunch of times (sometimes with groups of students) and the chill that apparently fell upon that Orange County test screening nearly three decades back still falls across people watching it for the first time. I don’t think it’s the content, I think it’s the execution; I’d reached the conclusion that after the novelty of the bleak ending wears off I’ll probably end up going back to the theatrical. That, for all its tonal inconsistency, the upbeat ending somehow still works better.
After the lecture, something weird happened. I googled the test screening to check I’d got a couple of my facts right and chanced upon the LSOH Wikipedia page. In amongst all the things I already knew, there was a mention of the ‘lost’ full version of Meek Shall Inherit.
Ok, here’s where my deleted scenes obsession kicks in. I was not only aware of the full version, (which even Frank Oz seemed to have forgotten about, judging by a couple of comments he made a few years back), but I had a handful of stills that were in this book. Also on my hit-list as far as deleted scenes went was an alternate version of the feeding sequence involving Orin’s severed head, which I’d seen a still from in Cinefex magazine back in ’86 and I’d always wondered how it would play tonally. Neither of these scenes were in the deleted scenes compilation on the Blu Ray, and I’d become convinced I’d never seen them.
Then I noticed a recent amendment to the Wikipedia page, which said that the Meek Shall Inherit full version (including a dream sequence where Seymour turns into a plant) had appeared online. Less than a minute later I found it (thanks to the miracles of Google). I’d barely recovered from watching it when I clicked the text beneath the clip and found links through to two more videos of deleted scenes from a mysterious workprint.
To me, these were the holy grail. We had the plant-dream, we had the severed head feeding.
Amazingly, we had a much shorter version of the ‘Everybody Dies’ ending, as it screened at that ill-fated showing.
Jesus Christ. I watched them all, back to back, *directly* after watching the Director’s Cut (and then the theatrical ending on its own for good measure) so I had the nuances of the released versions pretty locked down in my mind.
See, there’s an incredible lesson for editors lying in the rubble of this wonderful treasure-trove of deleted scenes. I love the theatrical. I’m fascinated with the director’s cut, but it comes off disjointed and mean-spirited in the way everything is so drawn out.
Yet here, in this unseen version that’s more violent than the DC, we can learn the power of tiny changes in the edit. When Seymour feeds the baby-bird-in-a-tin version of Audrey II for the first time, the workprint edit choices stress something that both the Theatrical and the DC shy away from; blood.
We see a horrible shot of the blood gathering at the end of Seymour’s finger as he squeezes and squeezes, which is kind of yuck.
We see blood splashing over the plant’s adorable baby-bird ‘face’, and it’s a pretty horrible juxtaposition.
Prior to the feeding, we see Seymour laying out all that newspaper to soak up the gore. During the feeding itself, as previously mentioned, we see him feed the head to the plant, like a grim punchline to the sequence before we zoom into the plant’s maw to hear the laughter.
By not shying away from these tiny but unpleasant details, the workprint footage could *only* be leading towards the grim ending. And then, wonderfully, when the grim ending turns up at the end of the compilation it plays like a goddamn dream. Where it was long, drawn out, cumbersome and repetitive on the ‘Director’s Cut’, here it plays like a big bang of giddy, over-the-top monster movie. It’s short enough to pack a wallop, and the ‘punch’ images are actually synched with the ‘punch’ bits of the song. It’s bloody great.
Suddenly, in these few minutes of grainy footage, I can see my favourite version of Little Shop of Horrors. One that works tonally right the way through, going blacker than either of the others but never feeling mean about it. It’s a goddamn morality play, after all.
The last bits of my personal Little Shop of Horrors jigsaw fell into place today, and I love the movie even more than ever. Seems a shame to have to lobby for a new Blu Ray a mere three months after the last one came out, but sod it.
The queue starts here.
PS. I talk a bit about screenwriting and editing in my hour-long show about horror filmmaking, which is embedded for free below. If you regularly read this blog, you’ll already know that and will be rolling your eyes at me embedding it again. If you’re not a regular reader, I hope you check it out. Please note that it has some gore, nudity and swearing and isn’t safe for work. Unless you work somewhere that really digs gore, nudity and swearing, of course.