The 1960’s cult classic, Little Shop of Horrors, is one of Roger Corman’s most well known features, however, the film gave Hollywood much more than just an entertaining movie to enjoy. The film follows the story of a clumsy botanist, Seymour, who gets sucked into a whirlwind adventure after creating and becoming invested in a carnivorous plant that only feeds on human blood. Many know the film for being a favorite at midnight shows on college campuses, revival cinemas, and videocassette outlets in addition to inspiring the musical remake in 1986 and a theatrical version, which is most likely performed at least once in every high school, but Little Shop of Horrors can also be credited for beginning a new genre of film, helping launch Jack Nicholson’s acting career, and serving as an example for how to successfully produce a low (LOW) budget film.
The Black Comedy Horror Genre:
Perhaps channeling inspiration from his days working on the Stanford satirical magazine, The Chaparral, Corman ventured out into the cynical, darker and more wickedly funny depths of storytelling when creating Little Shop of Horrors. The film was the second of Corman’s black comedy trilogy following A Bucket of Blood and preceding Creature from the Haunted Sea. The trilogy combined certain elements of Corman’s style that came to define the new black comedy horror genre. Along with incorporating fast cutting, fluid camera movement, and in depth composition, the films were also all rooted in quirky plots built on somewhat gruesome premises. In Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour finds himself on a murder spree as the pressure to feed his talking, bloodthirsty plant makes him lose sight of right and wrong. Additionally, the genre requires well-sketched characters, which are prominent in Little Shop of Horrors. Seymour is timid, naïve and dimwitted, which together create a character that would allow such events to unfold. The flower shop owner, Mushnik, is Seymour’s loud, over-dramatic, demanding boss that speaks broken English with a heavy Eastern European accent. His obsession with success paves the way for many laughs in the film. Audrey is Seymour’s high-pitched, sweet but simple, melodramatic girlfriend that adds a hint of innocence to this dark tale. But most importantly, Audrey 2, the man-eating plant is a soulless, hungry, dictatorial villain that even has the gift of mind-control.
The trailer for the film highlights how these elements and characters work together to create the black comedy horror genre:
The Rise of Jack Nicholson:
Yet, if any character in the film is to stand out, Wilbur Force, the masochist played by Jack Nicholson, is definitely a top contender.
Having just made his screen debut two years earlier in Corman’s 1958 film, Cry Baby Killer, Nicholson asked Corman if he could read for the part of Wilbur Force. Originally, the character was intended to be played by a middle-aged man, but Corman decided he could not stop the young Nicholson from simply reading for the part. As fate would have it, Corman was blown away by Nicholson’s creepy but comical take on the character and he was immediately cast. These early appearances of Jack Nicholson on the big screen allowed him to show the world the talents that he harbored, which inevitably lead this Corman School of Film alum to the successful career that he has had.
The Joke that Became a Success:
Besides inventing a new genre and contributing to the rise of a star, Little Shop of Horrors also pushed the possibilities of low budget filmmaking to a new extreme. Having filmed A Bucket of Blood in just under a week, Corman initially conceived Little Shop of Horrors as a joke to see what his team could accomplish with just two days in a studio. The movie was shot in just two days and one night! The crew jumped from set to set, filming only one take and including whatever improvisational additions that made their way into the shot. Furthermore, since union workers were too expensive for this $50,000 budget film, real people on skid row were paid to be extras in the film. However, the success of the film proves just how much a small budget and two days on set can actually accomplish. While the film may have begun as a joke, the great influence the film has had in the realm of entertainment is by no means one.
Jack Nicholson is one of the more well-known actors who got his start with Roger Corman back in the 50′s when films were still shot in black and white. Nicholson starred in a variety of Corman movies, and even wrote The Trip (1967) which was a successful period piece starring Peter Fonda and Susan Strasberg.
Nicholson’s debut screen role was in Cry Baby Killer (1958) in which he played a distraught teenager who thinks he’s committed murder and holds a group hostage. Since then he has won 3 Academy Awards and many other awards too numerous to list.
When asked about his experience with Jack Nicholson, Roger Corman immediately smiles. He might mention his little known film Little Shop of Horrors which he shot in 2 days and 1 night, or he might mention his consternation that it took so long for Hollywood to recognize Nicholson’s talent. Either way, those early years were formative for both men, and the movies they created together may no longer be in the spotlight, but they played an active role in shaping the careers of Corman and Nicholson.
Here is Jack Nicholson in Cry Baby Killer: