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The Little Shop of Horrors

Year: 1960
Production Co: Roger Corman Productions
Director: Roger Corman
Producer: Roger Corman
Writer: Charles B Griffith
Cast: Mel Welles, Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Dick Miller Jack Nicholson

When Batman was created in 1939 he was just a strong idea. Layers of mythology, characters, stories, designs and accoutrements laid down over the ensuing decades util we got movies costing hundreds of millions of dollars that became the definitive statements on the universe of Bruce Wayne, Gotham City and everything in it.

To watch this original version of Little Shop of Horrors if you only know Frank Oz's remake from the 80s reminds you a little of Batman's history. It wasn't just that it came from the notoriously inexpensive Corman camp, it was the 1960s and the technologies and techniques just weren't what they were 20 years later when the cinema arts of puppetry and animatronics were in their prime.

Here, Audrey II looks like two cheap plastic kitchen colanders with some fake hair glued clumsily onto them, some stagehand under the table opening the maw while a nasal offscreen voiceover repeats 'feed me'. Contrast that with Lyle Conway's sublime puppetry effects in Oz's version and you're in another universe – just like when you compare the original guy who did detective work in a silly bat costume with the Grand Guignol effects extravaganzas we've seen from Chris Nolan and Zack Snyder.

You might also know Little Shop of Horrors as a musical. That all came after Corman's 1960 outing, when Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (later of Disney fame) created a 1982 stage show based on the original film.

And so, compared to the effects technology in the remake and without even any of the lively music this film is cheap, dour and a bit colourless (probably to be expected when the budget was supposedly $28,000). Only one thing would endure across the ages, and that's the idea.

As the kind of Jewish stereotype that probably wouldn't fly nowadays, Mushnick (Mel Welles) is a downtown LA florist whose shop is falling on hard times. He can hardly make a living without wrangling his dimwitted delivery boy Seymour (Jonathan Haze) because of the latter's unrequited crush on sales assistant Audrey (Jackie Joseph).

When Seymour messes up one order too many, Mushnick agrees to give him one more chance based on the incredible plant Seymour has come by which he convinces Mushnick will be a hit with customers. But when he gets the plant – which he's called Audrey Jr – to the shop it's nowhere near the marvel he's promised, starting to wither and die. But after accidentally pricking his finger one night while preparing to lock up and spilling it in the mouth of the flower, Audrey Jr perks up and Seymour realises it feeds on blood.

After the plant grows ever larger and livelier it becomes the hit Seymour promised, with business booming and customers lined up around the block (including Dick Miller in an amusing but redundant supporting role as a seemingly normal guy who comes in to buy flowers and then stands around without a by-your-leave eating them).

But behind the scenes, Seymour has to start a nasty and neverending campaign of finding not just blood but human flesh for Audrey II to eat, the plant all the while demanding more food the bigger it grows. And with a shop full of customers and Audrey responding to his advances on top of that, things get even more complicated.

It's all very rough around the edges, not just in the effects but the performing and writing as well, Corman seeming true to his reputation and only filming a single locked off take of every shot. But the most surprising thing is the comparatively downbeat and dark ending, one you're definitely not expecting if you're only familiar with the 1986 version or the musical.

I was also aware Jack Nicholson, a frequent early talent in the Corman stable, was in it and thought he played Seymour. He's actually in another role that's barely more than a cameo, and only he and Miller are recognisable decades later.

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