My Misspent Youth In Films...
Little Shop of Horrors
Directed by: Frank Oz
Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia
Released: December 19, 1986
Directed by: Michael Gottlieb
Starring: Andrew McCarthy, Kim Cattrall, Estelle Getty
Released: February 13, 1987
What I Thought Then
We owned a copy of Little Shop and watched it incessantly, and Mannequin was a regular rental. These were both fun movies with sing-along-able music, over-the-top supernatural plots, slapstick comedy, and big--dare I say campy?--performances.
What I Think Now
Wow. Here are two movies whose plots revolve around the premise that you can save a store by putting something really unique and interesting in the window display. So that's a thing.
I have a much deeper appreciation of Little Shop of Horrors as an adult than I did as a kid. For one, I get a lot more of the cinematic references. The movie, and the stage show it's based on, are send-ups of early 60s matinee fare, and Frank Oz is brilliant at shooting musical kitsch with puppets. In fact, the original Little Shop of Horrors from 1960 (which we also owned), a B-movie featuring a then-unknown Jack Nicholson, is exactly the kind of movie Little Shop is celebrating/parodying. For this rewatch I accidentally rented the director's cut, which has the downer plants-take-over-the-world ending from the stage show. Test audiences in 1986 couldn't handle it, so a "happy" ending was shot and that's the version I'm most familiar with, but I'm glad I saw this version instead. Honestly, it's the right ending for this movie. I get why it didn't go over. It's intentionally unsatisfying, but it's the punchline that the entire film has been building towards.
There are so many lovely little production details. During Audrey's dream sequence in Somewhere That's Green, the dream house looks fake, with clouds and trees that are obviously painted on a wall, and yet it's so charming. And the puppetry is just mind-blowingly good. This is a movie from the time before CGI. Audrey II (the plant) is a series of articulated puppets, and it's amazing how good they all look. As a kid, I had absolutely zero problem accepting that all of these disparate puppets at various scales were not only the same plant, but were really talking and interacting with the other characters. It's just that seamless. And the cast is perfect... well... nearly perfect. I don't like Ellen Greene's voice. And that hasn't changed, although I get what she was going for with her performance. Other than that, Rick Moranis is perfect, giving Seymour an endearing sense of twerpy-ness that lets you almost understand and want to forgive him for facilitating murder. Comic legends Steve Martin, John Candy, Bill Murray, and Christopher Guest (Oh, hey, Christopher Guest is in this!) all show up for memorable appearances--although Murray's masochist dental patient was a joke that completely missed me as a child.
On the whole, Little Shop of Horrors is a gem. I will be acquiring a copy of this one soon. It holds up as well today as it did in 1986.
Mannequin, by contrast, has not aged well at all. In it, an ancient Egyptian girl named Emma prays to the gods to not have to marry and is transported to the future where she becomes a mannequin that was sculpted by a would-be artist named John Switcher who can't hold down a job, but is our protagonist because he drives a motorcycle and wears bowling shoes. Or something. Emma falls in love with him immediately because of the feel of his hands as he was making her, but she also dated a bunch of men throughout history like Christopher Columbus and Michelangelo. Oh, and for some reason she becomes real when she's with John, but turns back into a mannequin whenever anyone else can see her. What this has to do with Egypt is anybody's guess. The world-building is very unclear. Not that it needs to be, per se. This is a romantic comedy, after all, so plot machinations are less important than emotional beats, but every time the movie engages with the plot, it just raises more questions than it answers. John is in love with a mannequin and all of his coworkers know this and are just sort of fine with it. Why? Because that's what needs to happen. Or something.
But it's not the nonsensical story that makes this one cringey. For that, we turn to the performances. We can start with Meshach Taylor's gigantic portrayal of walking gay stereotype Hollywood Montrose. This is a character who could walk onto the set of RuPaul's Drag Race and be asked to tone it down a bit. But he's not the most offensive stereotype, just the most obvious. Switcher's shrewish girlfriend Roxie is coded as Jewish, and her coworker Armand is a sex-crazed Italian-or-possibly-Greek-with-a-French-name whose misogyny is played for comedy and it feels very tone deaf in 2021. To say nothing of the caricature of ethnic stereotypes it milks. Oh, and let's not forget James Spader (Oh, hey, James Spader is in this!) as a slimy corporate brown-noser. It's a horrible representation of white dudes.
The movie's not a total loss, though. Mannequin succeeds when it leans into the chemistry between Cattrall and McCarthy. Even though their relationship makes no sense on the page, the two were clearly having a lot of fun on set and it shows in their performances. The fact that they work overnight in a department store that sells everything affords the movie opportunities to engage in some protracted lifestyle porn. There's a montage in the middle of Emma and John dressing up in different 80s fads and it's kind of magical, in its own way. There are some good jokes, and McCarthy is an entertaining screen presence, if a bit of a jerky one. And while the character Hollywood--the only character who returned for the 1991 sequel, oddly enough--is garish, he's also treated affectionately. When he's not being referred to as "the fairy", that is.
Solid recommendation for Little Shop of Horrors. Get the director's cut and expect the ending to be a little bit of a gut-punch, but in a fairly hilarious way. As for Mannequin, best to the leave that one at the store.