Dora Guo

“Little Shop of Horrors” (1986), a musical film adapted from a stage musical of the same name, is a horror-comedy blast that depicts a man-eating plant and a hammy sadistic dentist both engaged in abusive relationships.

Seymour, a harried flower shop assistant at Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists, finds a strange plant following a total eclipse of the sun. He names the plant Audrey II, after his coworker and later love interest Audrey. Audrey II grows considerably after consuming Seymour’s blood, and begins demanding more… substantial fare.

The horror in this film is varied, covering all three horror genre features of Sex, Eating, and Violence — the triumvirate of forbidden desires. ‘Little Shop of Horrors” encapsulates all these themes with one of the most ancient taboos: the consumption of human flesh. However, the horror of the film can also be divided into these three categories:

 

SOCIOECONOMIC/REALISTIC STRUGGLE:

For a film that very clearly is about a ravenous plant monster, exulting in its own campiness and over-the-top-ness, it addresses systems of abuse with surprising accuracy and empathy.

Orin, the sadistic dentist, is Audrey’s physically and verbally abusive boyfriend. “Little Shop of Horrors” doesn’t relent in its portrayal of the extent to which he exerts power over her; in her first scene of the movie, Audrey tries to cover up a black eye. She constantly has to pass up on outings (like a celebratory dinner or clothes shopping) that she would actually like to attend because she has dates scheduled with Orin. When asked why she stays with him, she cites how he’s a “professional” and makes a lot of money (Audrey herself lives on Skid Row, an impoverished neighborhood). It’s quite likely that Audrey has to rely on him financially.

I appreciated how the movie doesn’t try to spin Audrey as a gold digger because she’s in a lower socioeconomic strata or victim-blame her for staying with Orin. As she puts it: if he treats her like this when he likes her, who’s to say how he’ll act when he gets mad?

Orin’s characterization is so over-the-top that it’s nigh-impossible to take him seriously  — he’s a dentist with the personality and mannerisms of a comic book supervillain, and off-duty, he wears a black leather jacket while riding a motorcycle. Still, “Little Shop of Horrors” treats Audrey with nuance and understanding. The reality of her situation is a more mundane kind of horror, but no less uncomfortable to watch.

 

THE HORROR OF THE MOUTH & CONSUMPTION

Speaking of things that are uncomfortable to watch, “Dentist,” Orin’s villain song, is a delightfully catchy tune with some truly disturbing visuals.

As soon as he’s done singing about killing animals for fun when he was a kid, he enters his dentist’s office and immediately gets to work shoving sharp-looking metal implements into people’s mouths. One of my suitemates whom I showed the clip to had to physically look away. The most striking thing about this scene is how helpless the patients are, forced to have needles and drills — rusty, and antique, as Orin proudly states — poking around in their soft, unprotected mouth-flesh.

It bears mentioning that there’s a scene where the Orin, the ultimate sadist, encounters a masochist patient who is… aroused by Orin’s verbal and physical abrasiveness. Very aroused. I don’t know why this movie is still rated PG-13 since this scene was audibly, if not visually, framed as a sex scene. Uncomfortable to watch for more than one reason.

Back to “Dentist”: There is one disquieting shot taken from the inside of a mouth, which stands out to me as the reverse vantage point from most of the movie’s other mouth-focused shots, which zoomed into the man-eating plant’s gaping maw.

I bet you were all waiting for me to finally start talking about the star of the show, the plant of power, Audrey II.

Audrey II is obviously the opposite of Orrin’s patients: it demands to have forbidden things (a special kind of meat, if you will) put in its mouth.

You’d think that this movie would start off gentle in terms of the plant, which at the beginning is a rather cute flytrap-like creature. But the most disturbing scene in this movie for me was when the little plant began suckling like a baby at Seymour’s bleeding finger. (The designers gave it lips, why did it have to have red and humanlike lips.)

The moment when I had to look away was when Seymour squeezes his pricked finger to drip blood into the open, begging mouth of Audrey II.

 

PLANT → ANIMAL → HUMAN

Audrey II’s special horror is as manifold as its spreading roots and leaves.

First of all, for something that looks like a plant, it acts more like an animal or human. Aside from being, well, rather carnivorous (and it expresses a sexual appetite at times), it has its own kind of abusive relationship with Seymour.

These three qualities can all be found in Audrey II’s first song, “Feed Me.” With evocative lines like “Feed me all night long” and “I’m your willing slave” — coupled with the fact that it slides its vines under Seymour’s vest to caress his cheek — Audrey II expresses a weird predatory sexual energy which, frankly, I was not and am not comfortable with.

Outside of that song, Audrey II is blatantly manipulative. Although it clearly revels in eating people, it is never confirmed that it has to eat what it demands from Seymour. Even in “Feed Me,” when Seymour asks directly whether it strictly needs human flesh or not, Audrey II only answers with an enigmatic “Must be blood, must be fresh.”

It also pretends to be starving whenever it wants something from Seymour. Part of how the plant convinces Seymour to give it his blood is by pretending to be wilted. At the first smell of blood, it immediately stands tall again. Before it asks Seymour to kill Orrin for more flesh to eat, Audrey II also dramatically slams its head down onto the floor, affecting weakness.

Perhaps it actually does need human flesh, but why such a fast transition from perfect health to “dying”? It looks like a special kind of relationship where the abusive partner coerces the victim into doing morally questionable things “or else I’ll surely die.”

A dentist wielding the power of a white coat to abuse his girlfriend and his patients. A plant with human-level intelligence and bestial strength and appetite. These two figures are for the most part quite entertaining and have some very funny lines, but “Little Shop of Horrors” makes sure you don’t forget that they put the “horror” into “horror-comedy.”

 

Claire Fang | claire.fang@yale.edu