Little Shop of Horrors is, in many respects, a perfect movie. The 1986 film is a musical, based on a 1960 movie of the same name. It follows schlubby gardener Seymour Krelborn as he finds a mysterious plant that quickly develops more exotic tastes than fertilizer – namely, humans. Shop owner and caretaker Mr. Mushnik and co-worker Audrey encourage his passion, blind to reality until Seymour goes a bridge too far. It’s darkly funny, largely due to phenomenal performances by Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene and Steve Martin. Songs from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are the kind that get stuck in your head for days in the best way. Aside from being one of the most fun, campiest horror comedies of the 20th century, Little Shop offers a scathing critique into what capitalism asks of us, and the lengths we’ll go to to fulfill its empty promises.
The movie opens, after a short prologue song, with “Skid Row (Downtown).” Disheveled workers and decrepit tenements line the obvious set-piece streets, mourning their living and working conditions. “The bosses take your money and they break your hearts,” sings the stand-in Greek chorus, whose numbers serve as a nod to the Black girl groups of the 1950s. It makes it clear that this world is rife with inequality, one we as the audience know well. The abject sadness of poverty, the injustice of it all, is on full display. It’s a setting that explicitly informs the entire movie onwards.
Little Shop, like most musicals, has a thread of longing throughout it. There’s nothing Seymour wants more than to escape the circumstances of his birth, the poverty predetermined for him. It’s a dream Audrey shares – her big ‘I Want’ song is the heartbreaking “Somewhere That’s Green.” Her greatest fantasy is one where she “cooks like Betty Crocker” and her Better Homes and Gardens-worthy house is filled with “Pine Sol-scented air.”
In this world, Audrey has escaped the clutches of her abusive boyfriend Orin (Martin), a sadist whose song “Dentist!” is a gold standard in musical theater comedy (at least, it should be). Her poverty, though, is what led her to Orin in the first place. She reveals in “Suddenly, Seymour” that she met him working at a nightclub, when her wages at the flower shop were too low to survive. “He’s a rebel, but he makes good money,” she explains when Mushnik tells her to stay away after Orin’s given her a black eye.
Her and Seymour’s dreams are ones that arise from the conditions of capitalism. They’re manifestations of the ideas that have been fed to us since birth: the myth of being able to pull yourself up through hard work and perseverance, the fanciful notion of class mobility when in reality a majority of those in the bottom 20% of income level never make it to the middle class in the United States. Still, Seymour holds on to the notion that a modicum of wealth will solve his problems. At the end of “Skid Row (Downtown),” he sings in desperation “I'd do I don't-know-what to get outta Skid,” a harbinger of what’s to come.
Enter Audrey II. The plant starts small and unassuming, but as soon as she’s put in the window, folks in nice suits and pearls come into Mushnik’s Flower Shop ready to spend $100 on roses at the drop of a hat if it means getting a look at the “strange and interesting plant.” Seymour quickly discovers that the only way to make Audrey II grow is through blood. “Looks like you're not happy / 'Less I open a vein,” he laments in “Grow for Me.” Though he needs to compromise his health and happiness for Audrey II, the allure of wealth is far too enticing; Seymour gives in.
It works, in the beginning. Calls for weddings and funerals and birthdays pour in, and the shop is more popular than ever. But the thing about capitalism, about greed, about Audrey II, is that it demands more. Soon it’s not enough that Seymour is dripping as much blood as he can spare into her giant maw. She starts speaking and asks, in “Feed Me (Git It!)” for more.
“Does it have to be human?” Seymour pleads, “Does it have to be mine?”
Audrey II has no qualms about killing, and why would she? Her only goal is power. She promises Cadillacs and fancy dinners and manipulates her way around Seymour’s moral reservations. “I'm your genie, I'm your friend,” she tells him. He succumbs to the draw of material gain once again, this time not only harming himself, but committing murder.
Capitalism is a system that thrives on greed and exploitation. The only way to truly advance is to step on those who you deem as less worthy. There are always justifications for this: less skilled workers deserve less, they’re asking too much, or that this is what the market demands. Sometimes that rationalization comes when your adoptive father threatens to go to the police after he’s seen you chop up a body with an axe. Capitalism doesn’t care about the exploited. “I think it's suppertime,” Audrey II taunts.
After killing two people, Seymour is rewarded. A montage of businessmen in gaudy suits waving contracts in his face plays as the music grows tenser and louder. It’s clear through director Frank Oz’s language that all this fame and perceived success costs the price of one’s soul. It’s clear to Seymour, too. In “The Meek Shall Inherit,” the song leading up to the dramatic climax, he sings “Who knew success would come with messy, nasty strings? / I sign these contracts, that means I'm willing / To keep on doing bloody, awful, evil things.” The realities of what gaining wealth in a capitalist society necessitates has finally set in.
Guilt and shame eat away at Seymour until the film’s ending. He convinces Audrey to run away with him, out to somewhere that’s green. Capitalism has other plans. One last suit comes up and offers Seymour the chance to take clippings of the plant, introducing Audrey II to the mass-market. He’s horrified. After Seymour sets out to destroy Audrey II for the good of humanity, the plant attempts to kill her namesake, with Seymour rescuing the human Audrey only at the last minute. (In the original cut, she’s mortally wounded.) They take the money Seymour’s already made, and finally escape.
In the last 30 seconds of the ending that made it to screen, a baby Audrey II is shown in the front yard of the suburban house from Audrey’s fantasies. No matter how hard they try, the alien plant’s presence looms over their life. No matter if they refuse to feed it, lock it in an abandoned flower shop and leave it to rot, it finds its way back to them. No matter how ethically you try to behave under capitalism, it sneaks up on you to inflict its own brand of existential horror.
*Article thumbnail image courtesy of Warner Bros./HBO.