Toronto Film Society presented The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) on Saturday, October 30, 2021 as part of the Season 74 Film Buffs Screening Series, Programme 1.
Production Company: The Filmgroup/Santa Clara Productions. Producer: Roger Corman. Director: Roger Corman. Screenplay: Charles B. Griffith. Music: Fred Katz, Ronald Stein. Cinematography: Archie R. Dalzell. Film Editor: Marshall Neilan Jr. Art Direction: Daniel Haller.
Cast: Jonathan Haze (Seymour Krelborn), Jackie Joseph (Audrey Fulquard), Mel Welles (Gravis Mushnick), Dick Miller (Fouch), Myrtle Vail (Winifred Krelborn), Karyn Kupcinet (Shirley), Toby Michaels (Shirley’s Friend), Leola Wendorff (Mrs. Shiva), Jack Nicholson (Wilbur Force).
“…You shall not sow your field with a mixture of seeds.…” Leviticus 19:19
The 1960 film version of The Little Shop of Horrors is an American horror-comedy directed by Roger Corman and written by Charles B. Griffith. It stars Jonathan Haze (Seymour Krelborn), Jackie Joseph (Audrey Fulquord), and Mel Welles (Gravis Mushnick), with one hilariously uncomfortable scene featuring Jack Nicholson (Wilbur Force). The film—in its setting, story, style, and post-release trajectory—is a delightful play on the generative and destructive potentials of mixing—genres, cultures, species, and ultimately mediums.
The movie opens with a colourful drawing and description of the scene’s setting, simply called “skid row”. The setting (which consists of recycled sets from the recently shot A Bucket of Blood) is repeatedly referred to by many characters throughout the film. It’s a place for violence to escape, as embodied by the sadistic dentist, who admittedly could only get away with practicing on skid row. It’s also an ethnic place, with much Yiddish and Yinglish wordplay. Take Mr. Mushnick, a soft, wet, pulpy mass. This grotesque melting pot is the perfect setting for this strange plot—of the American Dream gone awry—to take place.
The story follows a hapless florist’s assistant named Seymour Krelborn, and the horrific plant he creates by splicing together a Venus fly trap and a butterwort. He brings it to the shop to save his sad job on the recommendation of a strange, yellow-vest wearing, flower-eating, but seemingly worldly man named Fouch. Fouch correctly predicts that a strange plant will attract interest and business. Mr. Mushnick’s eyes may as well have been dollar signs. At first, Seymour just seems to be innocently pulled along, but as the film carries on, his ambitions become more obvious and his scruples less so.
The setting and plot, though, are not what made this film a cult classic. As Griffith pointed out to Aaron W. Graham in an interview for Senses of Cinema, the film is nominally a farce. But its genre-bending, off-beat sense of humour mixes in elements of slapstick and the kind of exaggerated, Yiddish-styled English of comedians like Myron Cohen, as well as a strong grasp of horror tropes and black humour, to boot. It’s probably this sensibility more than anything that makes it so endearing.
Indeed, it has only grown in popularity since its initial release, making more money every year for 25 years, until the remake killed it. But it’s been revived and has steadily gathered a following through screening on late-night television, in film schools, and many other places besides. Like the plant at the heart of this film, it found a way to look dead until someone could find the right food for it. And like a good plant, it produced many seeds for variants (of varying success) to grow.
While the film is regarded as a horror-comedy, in the traditional sense of the word, it’s probably more of a tragedy. Through all the hilarious carnage, there seems to be a pretty simple message: “Don’t let ambition consume you!” But the sadness underlying this message is two-fold. Firstly, we are perhaps accustomed to recognizing ambition and greed in Wolf-of-Wall-Street-type figures, and less able to recognize its consuming and corrupting influences in weaker “figuratives” of a man like Seymour, but it’s there and just as destructive. Secondly, while a colourful setting, “skid row” is a place of desperation, fear, and abandonment. It is precisely in such vulnerable environments that strange species are liable to take root.
But I won’t leave you with that sad note for such an enormously enjoyable film! The main character is at one point compared to Luther Burbank, a prolific botanist who developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants. Truly a towering figure, he is the grandfather of the single most used potato in food processing worldwide, which was originally developed to fight the Irish famine.
Notes by Benjamin Miller