As a scholar of all things in the realm of nerdom, I am enraptured by video games, comics, films, and musical theater. In particular, I love the musical Little Shop of Horrors (1986) because it blends some of my favorite genres including science fiction, Greek tragedy, comedy, and of course horror. The blending of live performances and musical compositions are in the top tier of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman productions. The narrative of Little Shop is deeply layered and takes first-time viewers by surprise by its wit and unflinching darkness. Well, at least the film/musical did for me.
The film lulls the audience into thinking this is a brilliantly well-produced monster movie with a few catchy songs thrown on top for window dressing, but that’s where Little Shop of Horrors shines brightest — the complete erosion of the status quo (including happy endings). The plant from another world feeds on the protagonist’s internal conflict and the rest of the world’s avarice to become the dominant species on the face of the earth.
Prior to the global takeover, there was a plot through-line that intrigued me just as much as the gorgeously puppeteered plant — poverty. Besides the repugnant Dentist who lives on the nicer side of the city, every other character lives on Skid Row. Even though the film is shot in color, there’s rarely any light that permeates the city streets. The denizens are scraping to get by — if they’re even able to scrape — and most of this section of the city has seen better days or always been on ‘hard times’.
There’s desperation exhibited by the main character Seymour, to escape the clutches of the city and the plant in equal measure once he learns of its ill intent (even though he knows the plant needs blood in the first place to survive). Ultimately, he knew the plant would escalate in ravenousness but the plant was his meal and fame ticket, plus a way to impress his love interest Audrey. Well, when the credits roll, none of that pining mattered because as mentioned previously, the plant consumes everyone and everything the main character ever loved.
As a central setting, the film never shies away from the location of Skid Row, an impoverished metropolitan area that is clearly on its last legs largely due to a devastating economic shift in its community. We see the poverty etched into the very foundation of every scene, except in “I want” song sequences where the characters daydream of a life outside of Skid Row with the culturally cultivated idealism of the ‘American Dream’. Skid Row and all the trappings that come with it hang over the central characters of Seymour and Audrey like a heavy fog and colors their wants versus needs accordingly.
Early on, Seymour sings of going hungry and being abandoned by his parents, whereas Audrey sings of suburban safety and domestic bliss. Both characters’ narrative arcs have more commonalities than dissimilarities than initially meets the eye. Audrey at first glance is glamorous and outgoing, but in truth is quiet and very reserved; conversely, Seymour appears meek and shy but has untapped moxie and pluck below the surface. The film unabashedly shows the trauma and daily struggles of attempting to retain your humanity while living in poverty and never lets the audience become too comfortable or conditioned to relax in its environments.
I can’t pontificate about the majesty of Little Shop of Horrors without mentioning the tether that binds this film together, three of whom are the omniscient Black narrators’ Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronette who act as the Greek Chorus that remain present or on the periphery of many scenes, entering and exiting at will. They are the type of fascinating characters that will keep you puzzling for days as to their presence and existence as benevolent or malevolent forces and whether or not they’re real, imaginary or a harbinger of the plant’s imminent arrival. The existence of these three Black female characters has always been controversial, or at minimum brokered discussion about Black Women as periphery objects to White character’s stories. As shown throughout the film they can blend into the community as regular teenagers and in the next or sometimes the same scene become alluring songstresses akin to The Supremes.
Actually, after the first scene where they’re introduced as ordinary people, they are never shown this way again. Hereafter, they’re always glamorized and inhabit this interesting space where even they too may be imagining themselves into a better story where they are the leads or in a more luxurious setting. They are my favorite characters, or non-characters if you will, because they are the consciousness and voice of the people, especially those cast out. All of their blended harmonies crescendo at the film’s end to reveal a song of doom.
Before viewing this film, one is hooked by the ominous Little Shop of Horrors title, and one speculates about what types of horrors lie therein. The horror of poverty was soberingly non-romanticized and realistically portrayed. Plus, the additional exploration of the science fiction genre included the horror of a killer, ceaselessly ravenous, plant from outer space and acted as the show-stopping ‘Godzilla’ that preyed upon the citizens of our world. The plant at first glance seems harmless and oftentimes cute, but when its sentience is revealed that initial charm turns into something far more sinister. As the plant becomes a resident fixture of an unsuspecting community its vines grow, tangle, and ensnare everything akin to its counterpart of poverty…a slowly creeping menace that, once recognized, is nearly impossible to extinguish. (If only the plant was made out of money or was a giving tree…we might have gotten that happy ending…maybe…)