Little Shop of Horrors

November 2, 2012

Once upon a time, during a weekend in 1960, Roger Corman had a set, some actors, and nothing better to do. So in three days (so the legend goes), he and scriptwriter Charles Griffith filmed a wacky little horror comedy about a man-eating plant.

This no-budget throwaway has survived as one of the zaniest products of Corman’s freewheeling early days. For years it was a staple of the revival circuit and television. Then, a few years ago, someone had the improbable idea to turn the thing into a stage play. And a musical, yet.

The project, shall we say, blossomed. More improbably, it was a big hit. And most improbable of all, it’s been made into a movie again, this time with big-budget backing and songs to boot.

Deep down, I’ll always prefer Corman’s zonked-out quickie. I love its skid road production values and its Catskills-style ethnic humor.

But the new movie has a lot going for it, and deserves to end up as one of this season’s hits. It’s a bright, ditzy thing, full of artificial sets, arch acting, and goofy songs.

A trio of doo-wop girls serve as a chorus, as we are introduced to a rundown New York neighborhood, circa 1960. Mushnik’s florist shop is mired in an apparently terminal slump—until the shop boy, Seymour (Rick Moranis, from “SCTV”), finds “a strange and interesting plant” one day. Placed in the store window, the plant quickly attracts business, much to the delight of Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) and clerk Audrey (Ellen Greene, adorably vapid). That this homely little bulb would attract all this attention is just the first of the film’s intentional absurdities.

Seymour names the planet Audrey II. He harbors a love, or as much goony affection as he can muster, for the real Audrey, but she is stuck with a sadist boyfriend (a plum role for Steve Martin). Naturally, the sadist practices dentistry.

Audrey II brings Seymour money and glamour, but there is a photosynthetical downside. The plant can live only on blood. Human blood. Seymour must supply supper, or lose his plant—and, he supposes, lose Audrey.

Understand that not one whit of this nonsense is played straight. The approach that lyricist Howard Ashman (who also scripted) and composer Alan Mencken have taken is a thorough put-on: campy and tacky.

I don’t know how they came up with Frank Oz for director—he’s a longtime collaborator of the Muppets’ Jim Henson—except that one of the main characters is a large Muppet-like creature; the plant, given voice by the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs, steals a number of scenes, and behaves with much impertinence.

Oz directs with uninhibited glee, frequently stuffing visual gags into the big numbers. Martin’s dentist song, a tour de force that ought to be released as a video for MTV, is a string of hilarious jokes on the fear of oral surgery, building to the moment when Oz cuts to a shot looking at the insanely cackling Martin from the inside of a large fake mouth. Oz is exactly in tune with this show’s nuttiness.

There are cameos, mostly unnecessary, from John Candy, Jim Belushi, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray; the latter plays a dental patient who loves pain.

In the original film and the musical play, the plant eats everyone at the end. That ending was filmed, but was reshot after some test previews favored a happier ending. Actually, this new ending may be even better and funnier than the original. In a quiet way, Audrey II still has the last laugh.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1986

Hey, didja notice I never mentioned the title of the movie? I didn’t notice, when I wrote this review. I have a feeling I did this a few times over the years.

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Spaceballs

October 6, 2011

Mel Brooks found his winning movie formula in the 1970s. He settled on a target, took parodic aim, then filled the screen with as many gags as he could muster.

With Spaceballs, Brooks has the target: space epics a la Stars Wars. Unfortunately his aim is off, by about five years. And, most importantly, the gags aren’t mustering. Mustered?

Brooks probably figured that what worked with the western (Blazing Saddles), the horror film (Young Frankenstein), and the Hitchcock movie (High Anxiety) could work in space—and provide him a safe return to directing after the disappointing History of the World, Part I, which he made six years ago.

But Spaceballs reveals Brooks to be disturbingly out of touch with funny business, and I’d be very surprised to see this film do big box-office. It’s full of painful puns and far too many of those pauses that follow punch lines—the pauses that are supposed to be covered by laughter but which, I suspect, will be greeted with silence.

Brooks directs, produces, co-scripts, and plays two roles. The plot shakily orbits around a space adventurer (Bill Pullman) and his assistant (John Candy), who is half-man, half-dog (“I’m my own best friend,” he explains, in one of the film’s better lines). They assist a runaway princess (Daphne Zuniga) and her robot (voice of Joan Rivers), while an evil general in oversize headgear (Rick Moranis) plots something evil.

Brooks appears as the nasty president of one planet, who wants to steal the air supply of another; and as Yogurt, a shrunken and inexplicably Jewish wise man, built along the lines of George Lucas’s Yoda.

To avoid overkill, I will illustrate the film’s humor with one representative example. Pullman and Candy decide to jam the radar of the evil ship. In the next shot, we see an enormous jar of raspberry jam smash against the radar receiver of the enemy vessel. Jamming the radar, see.

That’s a median joke. At least half the gags are worse. Funniest, oddly enough, is the irrelevant ethnic humor. Zuniga, who comes from the planet Druidia and whines about her designer luggage, is described as a “typical Druish princess.” (I know, I groaned too.) And Yogurt’s inspirational phrase is the catchy, “May the Schwartz be with you.”

Mel Brooks is a funny person. But something’s gone out of his moviemaking. He needs better writing collaborators, for one thing: his former partners have included Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, and ace comedy writer Andrew Bergman. Spaceballs credit is shared with Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham, and they don’t have the wicked sensibilities necessary.

On the other hand, maybe Brooks has simply lost interest. For most of the last decade, he’s spent his time executive-producing interesting movies such as The Elephant Man, Frances, and 84 Charing Cross Road. He’s obviously lavished a good deal of care on them; whereas Spaceballs seems tired and perfunctory, as though Brooks half-heartedly felt he had to keep his comedic hand in. To put it bluntly, the Schwartz is no longer with him.

First published in the Herald, June 26, 1987

And yet people quote lines from this movie and remember some of its gags fondly, an aftermath I find surprising. It’s not just that the jokes seemed unusually lame, but that the movie should’ve come out in 1980 to have any sort of oomph at all.


Head Office

June 8, 2011

At first glance, Head Office appears to be an absurdist satire along the lines of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network or Hospital. This time the subject is big business, of the multimillion-dollar cut-throat variety.

In the film’s opening minutes, we’re introduced to a rabid gallery of business people. One executive (Danny DeVito) arrives at his office and discovers the furniture movers taking his couch away; this is the first sign that he’s become a non-person. He finds a farewell present in his bare office and, upon discovering it is only a Timex, throws himself out a window.

Another exec (Rick Moranis, doing a spinoff of a character he used to do on “SCTV”) goes through a delirious routine of answering all 35 of his ringing phone lines pausing long enough to mutter savagely, “I looove this business”—whereupon he keels over dead.

Another exec (Wallace Shawn) learns he has only eight months to live, and the sharks start gathering at the door; another (Jane Seymour) is sleeping her way to the top—but, as she defensively points out, “I wouldn’t be much of an executive if I slept my way to the bottom.”

The company they work for is INC, run by Eddie Albert, who enjoys stirring up Central American civil wars and is given to saying things such as, “I’m one of the most powerful men in the world, and if I can’t have somebody killed, then what does it mean to be powerful?”

Into this feeding frenzy is thrown a fresh business-school grad (Judge Reinhold, Eddie Murphy’s sidekick in Beverly Hills Cop), the son of a senator, whose graduation present from his parents is a three-piece suit and a paperback copy of “Winning Through Intimidation.”

As it turns out, Reinhold couldn’t intimidate anybody even if he wanted to—and he doesn’t want to. But he gets a series of promotions anyway, because the people of INC want to use his father’s power.

So far, this satire is funny—and welcome. It’s refreshing to see some good, clean cynicism, especially after the recent surfeit of Sylvester Stallone thumbs-up movies.

But then writer-director Ken Finkleman has to go and get hung up on plot—specifically, a plot about Reinhold falling for a girl trying to save a small town whose livelihood, a steel mill, is about to be closed by INC. This detracts from the fertile madness of the office building, and builds to an entirely conventional conclusion.

Still, Head Office has a few good yuks to offer, and a busload of good supporting performances. Particularly memorable is Michael O’Donoghue, who may be remembered as the twisted “Mr. Mike” from the original “Saturday Night Live.” O’Donoghue, as Albert’s icy No. 2 man, blandly weighs the pros and cons of assassination, cocking his head thoughtfully—it’s a performance that would be quite terrifying in a straight movie.

First published in the Herald, January 9, 1986

Clearly, I wanted this to be better. Finkleman is still working in television, Moranis has sort of quietly left the limelight, and O’Donoghue died in 1994. Was this movie ahead of its time, completely in the wrong decade? I guess so, but it deserves some blame for backing away from its raucous early scenes.