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‘Little Shop of Horrors’ (PG-13)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 19, 1986

Could the Hollywood musical be back in style? The answer may be yes after "Little Shop of Horrors." Based on the off-Broadway hit (which was, in turn, drawn from the 1960 Roger Corman horror flick), "Little Shop" has an old-fashioned style and a new-fashioned sense of humor -- by which I mean a man-eating plant, a sadistic dentist, a masochist who goes to the dentist for fun and David Letterman-style parodies of the early '60s.

To elaborate:

Like the rest of Skid Row, Mushnik's Flower Shop has fallen on hard times. Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) is about to lay off his two employes, Audrey (Ellen Greene) and Seymour (Rick Moranis), but they have problems of their own. She's involved in an abusive affair with a thug (Steve Martin) who has made violence work for him -- he's a dentist, the "Leader of the Plaque." Poor Seymour, on the other hand, is in love with Audrey, butdoesn't have the courage to tell her.

Instead, he spends his time in the basement with an odd new plant that he's christened "Audrey II," and that's where the trouble -- and the fun -- begins. Audrey II makes Mushnik's a flourishing hot spot, and Seymour something of a celebrity. But as it grows and grows, Audrey II also gets hungrier and hungrier. And unfortunately, its idea of plant food isn't a whit different from Dracula's notion of a one-course meal.

As he strips off his leather jacket to reveal a white smock beneath (and immediately conks his nurse in the kisser), Martin's cameo is a high point in a movie that, had it been consistently as good as its high points, would have been a comedy classic. Snarling in the drawl of a southern sheriff, his hips rolling as if they were thick with black grease, Martin careens into his bit like an 18-wheeler on a wet interstate, and you think he can't be topped -- until Bill Murray shows up in the office, a masochist looking for thrills (the role Jack Nicholson played for Corman). Murray and Martin together is the comic equivalent of the Thrilla in Manila, as the two peerless comedians of our era go at it hammer, tongs and, uh, drill.

Dentist jokes aren't exactly new stuff, and that indicates the thrust of "Little Shop's" humor as a whole -- it's Borscht Belt with a modern spin. Many of the quips and song lyrics work both as jokes and as a parody of those jokes; screen writer and lyricist Howard Ashman has mastered the essence of '80s humor, recycling the old with a hip knowingness, all with a morbid, outrageous edge. And in the end, there's something intrinsically funny about making gardening, of all things, the stuff of humor, an almost automatic laugh simply from the mention of the word "zinnias," or when the hero screws up his courage and announces, "This is between me and the vegetable."

It only helps that the vegetable in question is every bit as vivid as Martin or Murray. Carlo Rambaldi, who constructed E.T., once said that the trick to making a dingus human was in the eyes -- he's right, and that only makes the work of director (and former Muppeteer) Frank Oz all the more extraordinary, since the plant has no eyes. Oz (and designer Lyle Conway) work instead with the monster's mouth and incredibly lifelike gestures (which took as many as 40 operators working in concert). Add the voice of Levi Stubbs (of the Four Tops), and Audrey II goes straight to the head of its genus.

Oz is less successful, however, when it comes to the more conventional tasks of directing. While he keeps the camera moving fluidly, the movement tends to repeat itself; there are some interesting visual jokes, but Oz doesn't make them part of the movie's visual fabric. The idea behind the lighting scheme may be to parody the bad lighting that prevailed in 1960 (before Hollywood had really absorbed the idea of color), but it's bad lighting just the same.

Moranis, with his squirrel's jowls and the perpetual pout of a little guy wounded by life, contributes another of his classic nerd turns, and Greene is funny as a blond so dumb, peroxide seems to have leached into her brain. But Oz doesn't pace his story so that their romance involves you -- he treats his central characters as cameo players, too. Predictably, they only suffer by comparison with the real cameos -- including (besides Martin and Murray) John Candy as a self-styled "wacky" radio host, Christopher Guest as the original man in the gray flannel suit and Jim Belushi as a fast-talking global entrepreneur.

"Little Shop's" worst flaw is its "spectacular" finale, which was shot after the movie was finished, and looks reshot, too -- it's over before it's started, a dud. But the pleasures of "Little Shop" carry you past its dull stretches -- you enjoy its quick-witted wordplay, inventive sketch comedy and the Broadway- and Motown-influenced music (by Alan Menken). And most of all, you enjoy watching a story told through song, as the Hollywood musical, with its glitz and sass, is reborn.

"Little Shop of Horrors" is rated PG-13 and contains mild profanity and sexual themes.

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