The Little Shop of Horrors is a black-and-white 1960 horror/comedy film directed by Roger Corman and written by Charles B. Griffith. The story may have been inspired by “Green Thoughts,” a 1932 story by John Collier; it may have been influenced by “The Reluctant Orchid,” a 1956 sci-fi story by Arthur C. Clarke, which in turn was inspired by “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid,” a 1905 HG Wells story.
The film stars Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, and Dick Miller, all of whom had worked with Corman on previous films. The Little Shop of Horrors uses a whimsical, idiosyncratic sense of humour, combining black comedy, farce, Jewish humour, and bits of spoof. It was shot on a budget of $28,000 ($240,000 in 2019), with interiors shot in two days.
It gained a cult following after being distributed as a B-movie in a double feature with Mario Bava‘s Black Sunday. A small, early role for Jack Nicholson retrospectively helped the film’s popularity when promoted on home video releases. It became the basis for an off-Broadway musical, which in turn was made into a film adaptation in 1986, starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, and Ellen Greene.
A link to quotes from the film can be found here. Since Corman never bothered to copyright the film (thinking it had little in financial prospects), it has entered the public domain. A link to the entire film can be found here.
Seymour Krelboined (Haze) is a clumsy, socially awkward florist’s assistant working on skid row in California. His boss is Gravis Mushnick (Welles), a bad-tempered, penny-pinching stereotype of Jewish humour who speaks ungrammatical English, laden with malapropisms, in a thick Yiddish accent. Seymour will be fired for his ineptitude unless he can impress Mushnick with his new plant.
All the characters in this film are comically idiosyncratic in one form or another: Seymour’s love interest, Audrey Fulquard (Joseph), the sweet–if rather ditzy (her dialogue, too, abounds in malapropisms)–girl next door; Burson Fouch (Miller), an eccentric eater of flowers who gives Mushnick the idea to save Seymour’s job by using his unusual new plant to attract customers; Seymour’s hypochondriac mother Winifred (played by Myrtle Vail), who considers medication synonymous with food; ever-mourning Mrs. Shiva (aptly surnamed), who always needs flowers for funerals (hoping for cut-rate prices) for the latest death in the family; Sergeant Joe Fink, the narrator, and Officer Frank Stoolie, two Dragnet-style detectives; Dr. Phoebus Farb, a fittingly sadistic dentist; and Wilbur Force (Nicholson), a masochist who loves going to the dentist.
It’s interesting how Fouch, an eater of flowers, encourages the public display of a plant that, as it turns out, eats human flesh. Flowers are the commodity sold in Mushnick’s shop, of course, and Fouch is a consumer (in more ways than one) of them. The addition of ‘Audrey Jr.’, the giant man-eating variant of a Venus flytrap, to the store will cause business to boom in a way all storeowners dream of, but not even Mushnick will want to pay the gory price that Audrey Jr. demands.
The rapid growth of Audrey Jr., coupled with its appetite for human flesh, can be seen to symbolize the predatory nature of capitalism, which must continue growing, being fed on profits (i.e., the improved business of Mushnick’s flower shop), with no regard for the needs of human life.
So, consumption–in its various meanings–is the dominant theme of the movie: the plant’s consumption of human flesh, Fouch’s consumption of flowers, Mushnick’s customers’ consumption (buying) of his flowers, little Audrey Jr.’s consumption (using up) of Seymour’s blood, his mother’s consumption of medicines as if they were food, and the public’s consumption (i.e., reception of information/entertainment) of the display of Audrey Jr. in the flower shop.
Since the setting of the film is skid row, a part of town where the poor try to escape their troubles in such forms as alcohol and drugs, Winifred’s consumption of medicines can easily be seen as symbolic of drug addiction, especially since the tonic Seymour buys for her is 98% alcohol. She has a few sips and is already tipsy by the time he leaves their house with his then-little plant.
The symbolic relationship between Fouch’s eating of flowers and Audrey Jr.’s eating of people should be seen as a karmic one. Fouch’s eating of flowers symbolizes man’s destruction of nature by commodifying it; the plant’s man-eating is thus nature’s revenge on man, the destruction of the environment being also our destruction, our collective suicide.
Commodification, the making of exchange-values to generate profits, is the basis of capitalism; small wonder Marx began Capital, vol 1 with a discussion of the commodity. Flowers are Mushnick’s commodities, so Seymour’s plant and its growth represent how the profit made from commodities result in another kind of growth: the accumulation of capital. Audrey Jr.’s bloodlust represents the pain and suffering that inevitably result from all this capital accumulation.
Seymour’s social awkwardness reflects the aggravated kind of alienation one would encounter in the poverty of skid row. He loves raising plants, but he is only of any worth to Mushnick if he can nurse Audrey Jr. to health and present it appealingly to his boss’s customers, getting them to want to buy flowers in the shop. Once the plant’s health has revived, and it has grown thanks to its drinking of drops of Seymour’s blood, his boss no longer loathes him, and even starts calling him ‘Son.’
Two pretty girls, who enter the shop out of curiosity about Audrey Jr., and who wish to decorate a float with flowers, treat Seymour like a pop star upon learning that it is his horticultural skills that have brought the plant to life. After Mushnick, dreaming of wealth and moving his flower shop to Beverly Hills, gives ever-grieving Mrs. Shiva flowers for free, he notices Audrey Jr. sick again, regrets his generosity to her, and instantly reverts to his contempt for Seymour. The boy’s alienation arises from only being of value if he can help his boss make money.
His alienation grows worse when he realizes that the only way he can keep Audrey Jr. alive is by murdering people and feeding it the corpses. Since murder is repellant to his nature, his bloody work is now alienating him from what Marx called one’s species-essence.
One is alienated from one’s work, from oneself, and of course from other people. Seymour alienates himself from others, though he “didn’t mean it,” but he isn’t the only one. Dr. Farb, the dentist who loves drilling holes in people’s teeth, also alienates people with his sadism. There are the teeth that hack up a man, and there’s a man who hacks up teeth, another reversal comparable to that of Fouch vs Audrey Jr.
There’s karmic retribution in Audrey Jr. eating human flesh, in response to what Fouch’s flower-eating represents (destruction of the environment). Then there’s karmic retribution in Seymour’s killing of Dr. Farb, in response to the dentist’s gleeful torturing of his patients; recall how, in the 1986 film musical, Steve Martin’s dentist sings of people paying him “to be inhumane.” Many high-paid professionals–doctors, lawyers, politicians–do awful things on a scale comparable to those of the greedy capitalist.
The suffering of the poor in such places as skid row, people ever held down under the boot of the capitalist, often leads to varying forms of mental illness, as in Winifred’s hypochondria and the sexual masochism disorder of Wilber Force (Nicholson). While most masochists in the BDSM community engage in their kink in a way that doesn’t cause them psychosocial difficulties, Force’s eager willingness to have (imagined dentist) Seymour pull out several–it is safe to presume–perfectly healthy teeth is clearly an impairment of Force’s functioning in social situations.
Added to all of this, the farcical humour we see in Seymour’s clumsiness, the eccentricities of his mother and Fouch, Farb’s sadism, Force’s masochism, etc., should be seen as representative of the absurdist futility of their existence in an alienating, capitalist society that keeps them in poverty and misery. Even Fink and Stoolie, the police investigating the disappearances of Farb and the railroad detective (whom Seymour accidentally hit with a large rock and made fall on the tracks to be run over by a train), react to the death of Stoolie’s son–who was playing with matches–by nonchalantly saying, “Those are the breaks.”
Audrey Jr.’s chewing of human bodies into pieces, Dr. Farb’s drilling and pulling of teeth, and Force’s delight at getting his teeth drilled and pulled, all represent the psychological fragmentation that results from an alienating capitalist society that privileges the few and impoverishes most of the rest of humanity. Even the budding relationship between Seymour and Audrey doesn’t last long; predictably, the talking plant’s incessant demand, “Feed me!”, is what gets in the way of their love. The growing monster of capitalism eats up everything.
The two girls who want to feature Audrey Jr. on their float fittingly say that their spectators will “eat it up.” The literal or figurative consumption of commodities leads to the consumers being karmically consumed by their own materialism and commodity fetishism. People see only the growing plant; they know nothing of what it is actually fed to make it grow.
Though Mushnick is horrified to find out that Seymour is feeding the plant human flesh, he is conflicted about whether to inform the authorities or to keep quiet and enjoy the new success of his business. It is common for business owners to be conflicted over the need to maximize profit vs the need to be humane towards their employees, to care about the environment, etc. We’ll notice however that, no matter how strongly…and sincerely…the capitalist feels about humanitarian concerns, the profit motive will take priority, because the capitalist is compelled to prioritize profit. Hence, Mushnick’s procrastination with telling the police.
Mrs. Hortense Feuchtwanger, a lady from the “Society of Silent Flower Observers of Southern California,” enters the flower shop and is fascinated with Audrey Jr. If the plant’s buds open on the evening she returns to the shop, and if she likes what she sees, she’ll give Seymour a trophy for his plant.
This trophy would represent the kind of recognition that Seymour, a misfit and ‘loser’ that no one has ever appreciated or liked, so desperately craves. Only recently have any women (Audrey, the two girls with the float, Mrs. Feuchtwanger) ever shown him any liking, and if there’s one thing we all desire, it’s that of the Other, to be desired of the Other, to get the Other’s recognition.
As with his romance with Audrey, though, Seymour’s appreciation from Mrs. Feuchtwanger will be short-lived, too. The lady returns to the flower shop to see the budding, and she is horrified–as are Audrey, Mushnick, Fouch, Winifred, and Fink and Stoolie, who are also there at the time–to see the faces of all those eaten by the plant in its opened flowers.
Oddly, the two girls with the float still like Audrey Jr., looking gleefully at the faces in the budded flowers. They represent the extreme of commodity fetishism: so entranced are they by the plant as a finished product that they show no regard for the victims that helped it grow.
Recall, also, that as horrified as Mushnick is at Audrey Jr., especially to learn that it is a talking plant, he, too, is willing to have it eat up someone–in this case, an armed robber (played by scriptwriter Griffith, who also did the voice of the plant). Guarding his money is more important to capitalist Mushnick than preventing yet another victim of Audrey Jr.
The robber isn’t the only member of the Lumpenproletariat to be fed to the plant: so is an aggressive prostitute who tries to get Seymour to be her next client. For indeed, with Audrey Jr. as symbolic of the ever-growing, ever-devouring monster that is capitalism, such Lumpenproletariat as criminals and streetwalkers are every bit as much victims of the bourgeoisie as are the strata of the working class just above them.
Capital seems to develop a mind of its own, in how it subjugates us all to the will of the profit motive, even when we try to resist it on moral grounds, as Mushnick and Seymour try to do. This ‘mind of its own’ would seem to explain, in symbolic terms, why the plant can talk, and why it can hypnotize Seymour into doing its will, right when he tries so vehemently to defy it.
So many of us on the left try to defy the system around us that we hate so much, but through the mesmerizing bourgeois media (part of the system’s superstructure), now including Facebook, the narcissistic exhibitionism of Instagram, etc., we all get pulled back into complying. Hence, Seymour wanders the streets of skid row, in such a trance as to ignore the charms of the streetwalker, and takes her back and feeds her to Audrey Jr.
When Fink and Stoolie learn that Seymour is responsible for all the killings, they and Mushnick chase him on the streets of skid row in the night. The two cops represent the feeble attempts that an otherwise bourgeois state makes to curb the excesses of capitalism. That feeble effort is demonstrated in their failure to apprehend ineffectual, spastic Seymour, who should be easy to catch.
They chase him into some bizarre, even surreal-looking, parts of town, but they are places nonetheless indicative of the capitalist preoccupation with commodities–rather unclean ones, actually. Seymour is chased into the private property of a tire and rubber company, when he runs and hides in a labyrinth of giant tires. One of the few times he doesn’t trip is over resting Mushnick’s leg, though Fink and Stoolie do trip over it!
Then Seymour hides in, of all things, a toilet among a maze of bathroom fixtures (sinks, bathtubs, etc). Mushnick tells the cops that they won’t find Seymour there, though he is most obviously there. In all of this not only do we see the symbolism of a bourgeois government failing to punish the excesses of capitalism, but we also see a capitalist helping in achieving that failure.
Seymour returns to the flower shop a broken man. Racked with guilt over his murders, he’s lost the woman he loves, he’s a wanted man, and it’s all because of that bloody, gluttonous plant that has repaid his services by ruining his life. In despair, he decides to sate Audrey Jr.’s hunger one last time with his own body…and a knife to kill it with.
A karmic reversal has finally happened to the plant, instead of it being an agent of karma; for such is the reality of the dialectical crests and troughs of theses phasing into negations and sublations that become new theses to be negated and sublated. Now Seymour’s face appears in the latest budding flower, to add to all the other faces. The plant dies, too, and just as capitalism kills, so will it destroy itself in the end.