Real depth can come from the most surprising sources, things which at first glance are commercial grabs, but which, when mined, show greater depth. On the one basic hand, Star Wars is ships in space shooting at each other and guys beating on each other with laser swords. On the other hand, the critical hand that studied at a college, it’s an examination of our yearning for a call to adventure lost in the grit of seventies cinema.
Consider Little Shop of Horrors, one of the movies that came out of the well of nostalgia that is the eighties. Many remember it as a musical. Many remember it as a comedy. Many remember it as a horror flick. Few, if any, read much into it.
I argue that, subconsciously, the reason it is so memorable, like many movies from that era, is that there is something much deeper in the writing to plumb often missed, something even stronger considering deleted scenes and sequences. Yes, on the surface it’s about a poor schmuck who makes good and gets the girl, just as Star Wars is about lightsabers, but Little Shop of Horrors is something else, something far more insidious about the way we create and why.
There are two versions of the film, thanks to cuts for release. There’s the “optimistic” vision, the one that ran in theaters, and I say optimistic because it is still, at its core, black comedy, and then there’s the pessimistic version, with many key changes this essay will examine.
I will assume familiarity with the story and highlight the major differences in the essential deleted scenes for the non-theatrical, altered cut to make my points, but let’s get on to the changes, shall we?
Originally the song “The Meek Shall Inherit” was much longer, featuring more lyrics and a dream sequence that showed a greater depth to Seymour’s conflict at having caused (or allowed, more appropriately) the deaths of Mr. Mushnik and Orin Skrivello.
Behold much of what was left on the floor, in the opening of this clip, and watch the short clip after, where Seymour talks with Audrey about his value to her without Audrey II:
At this point the body count is only two, and both deaths are largely the result of Seymour’s inaction, not his direct action, in both cuts. Orin the sadist dentist beats Audrey, revels in pain, and is about to hurt Seymour when Orin overdoses on his drug and dies. Mushnik is blackmailing Seymour while holding a gun on him when he walks backward into Audrey II.These are not absolutely villainous acts on Seymour’s part, but nor are they in any way heroic. These are contemptible people who have taken advantage of everyone they can, but they are still people who could have been saved, who arguably should have been. Scrivello is flatly evil, but Mushnik, while an opportunist, gave Seymour a place to live and a job.
Guilt about this changes things.
It means that in the theatrical version, an ultimately bad person (Seymour) is rewarded with life and a happy ending simply because he started the story a hero, despite committing arguably evil acts. It also means that Seymour goes wrong almost on a dime for fame and fortune and the girl, and he does not do anything to stop the plant until it threatens his selfish desire for Audrey and until the “burden of fame” becomes too much, which is kind of shit.
In the uncut version, by way of contrast, a good man goes bad slowly because of the temptation to finally have the things his passive, impoverished life has lacked, and he is rewarded for his selfishness with death, for him, for his love, and for the world.
This is important, because it allows the uncut version of the story to be what it must be, a tragedy, which the theatrical version cannot be, with its happy ending. This makes, to my mind, the uncut version the superior version in terms of human emotion, though the original can certainly be forgiven this quibble given its utterly flawless execution.
This bout of conscience also leads directly into the ending, which is the most drastic change. In both cuts Audrey is tricked by Audrey II into the shop to give the plant water. In the theatrical cut, it is flat-out to eat her, and Seymour comes to the rescue and saves her. This is the turning point where Seymour realizes the plant has to go, and arguably, where his character conflict is resolved for the better, and it’s simply a matter of survival from there on out.
It’s also a pretty bleak commentary on Audrey, and on victims of abuse. She doesn’t want to be free of abuse and find her “someplace that’s green,” in the form of a healthy relationship in the suburbs any more (as fictional as that too may be). Instead she finds meaning in the “someplace that’s green” that is being inside a plant. Being murdered. Her only consolation is that she gets to die at the hands of the abuser that loves her (Seymour) to feed his desires instead of the abuser that hates her, to feed his (Scrivello). Romantic music swells as she goes into the plant, and it’s played as somehow romantic, which, I submit, is a commentary on how awful it is, not an endorsement.
It’s horrible. It’s harsh. It’s brutal and incredibly powerful, because people really do behave like that and perish for it. They embrace the people that are the worst for them in the name of some security. It’s also horrible because we know Seymour wasn’t an abuser or an awful person until the world acted on him and he made the horrible choice to let it change him into a beast.
Seymour then decides to commit suicide, and frankly, good. He climbs the building and is ready to die, but he is then informed that because of the contracts he’s signed, it’s too late. The plant is everywhere. The world is doomed. It’s all his fault. So he has to die, but he also has a moral obligation to end the destruction he’s causing. So he tries.
This isn’t even the part that really chills me. The part that scares me about Little Shop of Horrors is that I identify with Seymour, and I know, in his place, I might do the same thing. That’s what’s really fucking terrifying.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t let anyone die. I wouldn’t cause the destruction of Peoria. But that’s not what Little Shop of Horrors is REALLY about, in my read. Little Shop of Horrors is about the consequences of being an artist.
No, really, it is. Here’s my read. Watch.
Seymour Krelborn is broke, and poor. He has no one who loves him, even though he’s a sweet, earnest, and sincere guy. He works hard. he tries his best. He’s been born in a bad place with people who abuse him, but he manages to rise above. He’s been working with art for years, but no one cares, because he’s not the greatest artist in the world. He putters in his basement, but no one really gives a shit.
There’s a girl that he loves, that he’d really like to impress with what he does, so he spends a night tormenting himself trying to come up with a new and interesting way to create art. Finally, he works so hard he literally bleeds on the page, and out comes something that someone would actually care about. That perfect canvas. The great screenplay. The poem to end all poems. A novel that makes people weep. The problem is, it’s not him. It’s a false imitation of what he really is. He doesn’t give a shit about this art, he’s just struck it dumb and lucky on a freak night.
Suddenly, this nobody is a sensation. He’s popular. He’s making money. He’s getting rich. This happens to artists all the time, I emphasize, typically once a life if it’s a stroke of luck, or for a longer period of time if one is truly fortunate. Suddenly people want to see what he does. The girl is interested. But what does he have to do? Well, first he smites some asshole randomly that comes at him (Scrivello) because he’s clearly a dick who doesn’t understand what Seymour’s getting at or trying to do. Who cares if you step on the head of a sadist to get a leg up? But then something strange happens. Seymour’s adopted father comes to him and accuses him of plagiarism, or of selling out. Well, clearly this Mushnik guy doesn’t get him, has never wanted him to be an artist, and so out of the life he goes. A limb cut from the tree he didn’t need anyway. We’re still Seymour at this point, and any of us might do the same.
But then the art starts taking over his life. Instead of doing what he wanted to do, which is puttering with meaningful small canvas in a way that enriched him personally and living with the girl of his dreams on a modest income, Seymour feels he has to create this thing that everyone likes but that he holds in contempt and is afraid of. He continues to do it, even though the face of his craft mocks him daily, and ultimately he becomes so obsessed with the work and its health that he doesn’t even notice it’s about to consume the woman he loves, to end his relationship, the reason he started to make art in the first place.
Here’s why the theatrical version doesn’t work for my read. In the theatrical version, the art almost consumes his love, he fights back, quits making the art, in fact destroys the art, and goes on to live happily in the suburbs.
Tell me how many artists you know where that’s the case, where they can just stop doing what they do.
Then there’s the cynical read, the terrifying read, my read on dark nights. Seymour does what he does because it’s all he knows now, and when his love suggests that she sacrifice herself on the pyre of what he has become, he readily embraces it, throwing her into his art and letting her disappear from the reality of his life, existing only in this thing he’s created. He’s lonely, but he doesn’t know why, and he knows he’s done wrong, but he doesn’t know how, so he contemplates suicide.
But before he does, he wants to remove all trace of what he was so that it won’t hurt anyone else, so he goes to his canvas and he creates a bonfire, and the bonfire consumes him and everything he ever was, but this simple act of creation is so strong and so undeniable that even though it destroyed him, and people can see that, now, all around, everyone is creating art, everyone is imitating him and working canvas and trying to get at that magic he left behind.
Eventually the whole world is consumed. Even Peoria.
Now how much of that is projecting or fantasy? Every damned thing. Every part of it and I like to think, I like to hope, that it’s a tragedy that will never befall me. I love the woman I’m with, and I hope that my art will not consume what we have, though it’s threatened to. I love what I do, and hope it has sincerity through and through, and that I will never make a thing simply because I want to have money and fame or fortune. But this is the fear that can also leave one broke, poor, and living alone in a basement making canvas no one ever wants to see.
And that, my friends, is utterly terrifying. And why this movie is much, much more than a black comedy. It’s a fucking masterpiece.
And the best part, the best part of all of it, consider, is that the version that exposes the consequences of art that is crafted to please a public has been subsumed by the version expressly designed to please the public, the theatrical one where the creator ends up in suburban paradise, somewhere that’s green, with the girl, the dog, and no cares in the world, just a tiny little nagging vision planted in the garden that he can look at every now and again and consider, and lament, that may one day rise to consume him once more, if he isn’t careful.