“The Guy Sure Looks Like Plant Food to Me!”: Eating the Poor in Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Updated September 26, 2022

“On the Twenty-Third Day of the Month of September in an Early Year of a Decade Not Too Long Before Our Own…”

I was never good at watering plants, but I certainly got worse after watching Little Shop of Horrors. I came across the film through my obsession with Labyrinth (1986), which if you couldn’t tell by the title of this blog, remains a favourite of mine. Little Shop was released in the same year as Labyrinth, and was directed by Frank Oz, a friend of Jim Henson and the voice of Miss Piggy. Oz was the perfect person to direct this adaptation because he was already well-versed with puppet construction and performance. The plot requires a giant puppet that can sing, dance, and eat people, all while expressing a range of complex and sinister emotions. While today, a director might turn to CGI for such a task, Oz and his creative team constructed a remarkable killer plant puppet, just as stage productions had previously done.

Little Shop is arguably one of the greatest stage to film adaptations, and that is largely because of Oz’s comedic style and technical background, as shown in earlier films like The Dark Crystal (1982), which he co-directed. It also features an iconic cast, including Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene (who also originated the role of Audrey on stage), Steve Martin, Levi Stubbs, and a short but legendary Bill Murray performance. Fun fact, Murray filmed Little Shop right before working on Scrooged (1988), a comedic adaptation of A Christmas Carol. That’s why at the end of Scrooged, during a crane shot, Murray suddenly yells “FEED ME SEYMOUR”, which makes zero sense in the context of Scrooged and Dickens. I suppose it was on his mind at the time? That alone demonstrates the extent to which Little Shop has migrated into our culture. Even if you are unfamiliar with the film or stage production, you have probably heard it quoted, as Murray once did, or you are at least a little wary of Venus Fly Traps.

“Look out! Here comes Audrey II!”

Back in 2012, I had the opportunity to see Little Shop on the big screen with a few friends. Each of us had already seen the film, but never at a movie theater. What we didn’t know, and what the theater had failed to advertise, was that it was showing the original version of the film, specifically, the original ending. The film played out as expected, until the last 20 minutes, when things started to go wrong. I wasn’t sure at first what was happening; had I just forgotten a part? Suddenly, characters who were supposed to survive didn’t, and the plant wouldn’t die. No one in the audience knew what was happening, people began shouting at the screen. Most, like myself, had no idea that Oz had originally created an ending where Audrey II takes over the world and eats everyone. It happens in the stage play, but the audience here seemed to just be familiar with the film. We sat there, shocked and horrified, as the happy ending we thought would happen never arrived.

I cherish this experience because it taught me a lot about film. It felt like the perfect twist, one which needed nearly 30 years of prep. It wasn’t that the film ended in an unexpected way, it’s that the film ended by dismantling our expectations of that ending. What we assumed was the established narrative turned out to be wrong, which meant the viewer had to reconcile their memory of the scene with what they were now watching. Nothing felt safe, and not just because none of the characters survive. The narrative which we were already familiar with doesn’t survive.

I find these two potential endings, the original and the theatrical, particularly interesting because the film’s antagonist is a multi-figure, one being spread across multiple bodies. This emphasis on the multi thus appears in the film’s literal format, where you never know which ending you might get. Just like Audrey II, the film is hydra-like, multi-headed and resilient.

Original Vs Theatrical

Little Shop is an adaptation of a successful Broadway musical, and it makes that apparent by featuring Greene as Audrey, the role she originated on Broadway. The theatrical version is fairly accurate until the ending, where it departs from the source material with a happy ending. Oz initially filmed an ‘accurate’ ending where Audrey II defeats Seymour and goes on to devour America, the very ending I stumbled across that fateful night. Although this is how the Broadway musical ends, test audiences hated the ending, so much so, that Oz was forced to reshoot, abandon the original $5 million dollar sequence, and create a brand new ending where Seymour wins and he and Audrey live happily ever after. It was only in 2012 that the original ending was re-released, and I would argue that it is far more effective than the theatrical cut. It makes the film’s critique on American culture quite apparent, and it reads more like a classic Twilight Zone episode, where the story is a warning rather than some optimistic reassurance that humans can overcome anything.

The original and theatrical cuts are largely the same until the last 20 min or so of the film. The difference begins right after Audrey II starts to swallow its namesake. In the original, Seymour rushes in and drags Audrey out of the plant, only for her to die in the back alley. As she dies, Audrey asks Seymour to feed her to the plant so a part of her will always be with him. He does, but immediately after, runs into a businessman who wants to take samples of Audrey II so everyone can buy one. Seymour realizes that Audrey II’s plan has always been to devour everything and destroy the world. It was just using Seymour to grow, taking advantage of his weak moral compass. While Seymour initially seems like a helpless figure, this reveal suggests that insecurity leads to the end of the world. It also means that the ‘so-called’ meek are dangerous threats because they are so blinded by an overwhelming need to overcome their meekness that are willing to sacrifice anything. Realizing this, Seymour confronts the now giant plant, but ultimately fails and is devoured. The film goes on to show Audrey II’s victory, as its children/clones devour entire cities across America.

Seymour realizes the same thing in the theatrical cut, but this time Audrey survives, and he successfully kills Audrey II. These endings leave radically different impressions, as the original suggests that it is too late, and that humanity was doomed the day the plant arrived, while the theatrical argues that evil can always be defeated and that the meek can overcome both themselves and adversity. Personally, I find the original more compelling, and that is mainly because of what Audrey II represents.

“Look, you’re a plant, an inanimate object-”

Science fiction is dominated by stories about technological monsters, or the creatures we create to feel God-like and then how these creatures eventually pose a threat. This is your standard Frankenstein-complex, a narrative which emphasizes that humans have been corrupted by science and technology, to the extent where we are so removed from God and the natural world that we try to replace it with artificial beings. What makes Little Shop unique is that it approaches this dynamic with a creature who embodies nature. The threat in Little Shop isn’t some strange robot or human, it is an alien plant, one which blends in with other fauna while also standing out as a remarkable new species. There is some precedence for this commentary, especially in modern science fiction, where humans have utterly corrupted themselves and nature unexpectedly retaliates. Here, however, the only nature involved is human nature, as the plant isn’t from earth. Its plant appearance is a disguise, a way to avoid detection as an alien, and that hinges on human’s general dismissal of nature. Sure, they pay attention to Audrey II and become obsessed with it, but no one suspects that it’s an bloodthirsty alien. Even Seymour is surprised by the alien reveal during the final battle. As such, Audrey II is a contradiction, as it’s natural but also unnatural, plant and alien, helpful and destructive. Rather than humans creating a threat, the natural world (or the universe) has sent us a threat.

Although Audrey II is just an alien who appears as a plant, it must be nurtured as a plant before it can overpower its ‘creator’. It is a parasite, as the plant initially benefits the host but later devours it. As such, Audrey II looks like a Venus Fly Trap while also acting as one, luring humans with sweet promises of wealth and success.

The film emphasizes Audrey II’s plant state by linking burial with being devoured. Burial is when someone is buried in the ground, which nourishes the soil and plants (essentially the circle of life from Lion King). Audrey II inverts this system by literally devouring prey, burying and covering them, but not in the ground. Swallowing is thus a form of burial and nutrition in the film. This is evident in the scene where Seymour feeds Audrey to Audrey II as an informal funeral.

Devouring could also be read as a form of suppression, like swallowing your fear or guilt. Audrey II absorbs bodies, and as a result, Seymour doesn’t have to look at them after they are swallowed. By feeding these people to the plant, Seymour is essentially swallowing or burying his morality.  However, the more bodies fed to Audrey II, the larger it grows, as does Seymour’s guilt. He can’t bury his past without consequences, and he eventually has to fight against the monster he has created. The more Seymour sins, the larger and more tenacious the plant grows.

It’s noteworthy that during the final confrontation between Seymour and Audrey II, the plant notes “You know I don’t come from no black lagoon. I’m from past the stars and beyond the moon. You can keep The Thing, keep The It, keep the Creature, they don’t mean shit”. This line implies that Audrey II is more powerful than its creator, Seymour, but also more powerful than the monster genre which Little Shop is based on, films like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Just as the plant devours Seymour’s world, it swallows these gargantuan cinematic monsters to become a new and modern antagonist. Its connection to these earlier films also implies that Seymour, along with the audience, should have been aware of these classic monsters and thus recognized their similarities with Audrey II before it became a threat.

Audrey II becomes all-powerful after eating its namesake, Audrey. As it absorbs Audrey, the mother of its name, it becomes more than she could ever have been. Simply put, the progeny overpowers its heritage and history. Just like the 50’s B-Movies mentioned by Audrey II, Audrey is nothing compared to what comes after her, or what was inspired by her. This explains why Audrey believes she will become part of the plant if it swallows her, as though each person continues to live by nourishing the plant, amalgamating with it, and then becoming greater than the single form they were before.

“I’m a Mean Green Mother from Outer Space and I’m BAD”

In a similar vein as projects like Frankenstein, Little Shop is preoccupied with corrupted motherhood. Seymour mothers the plant, and murder ensues. The plant mother’s itself by growing shoots, and the cycle continues. The film concentrates on growth, whether literal, economic, or moral, specifically through motherhood and dependency.

Much like Victor Frankenstein, Seymour worries about how uncontrollable his Creature’s offspring will be. Audrey II’s final song confirms this anxiety, as Audrey II argues it’s a “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”. Not just a mother, a violent and alien mother, whose offspring are as single-minded as their mother. It’s a different version of parenthood too, more like cloning than creation. Because Audrey II can multiply itself exponentially without Seymour’s help, it literally outgrows Seymour and takes control of its own motherhood (raising versions of itself).

There is also the fact that Audrey is a Venus Fly Trap, emphasis on the word Venus. For context, Venus is the Goddess of love and beauty, and so the Venus Fly Trap is so called because it lures flies with a sweet smell and then traps and slowly devours them. Simply put, it’s a femme fatale plant. Audrey II isn’t a beautiful woman, but it does lure people by promising love and happiness. Its body isn’t traditionally beautiful, but it is intriguing to countless spectators. What’s more, its voice is intoxicating.

Audrey II speaks with a deep, masculine voice, which is neither alien, goddess, mother, nor plant. It doesn’t match any of the things we associate with Audrey, and so Audrey II is fundamentally mismatched. As such, the plant is an uncomfortable and uncertain contradiction because represents multiple things simultaneously in this hydra-like way.

“I Couldn’t Help but Notice that Strange and Interesting Plant! What is it?

It is ironic that the original ending, about the dangers of capitalism and consumerism, was cut because the studio believed it wouldn’t sell. That sort of proves the point, as Audrey II takes over the world because people are willing to give up everything and murder one another to be successful. This ending is obviously a critique, but of multiple simultaneous issues.

Seymour and humanity were doomed to fail because they never recognized what Audrey II embodied, or as Audrey describes “Ya don’t know what you’re messin’ with. You got no idea. You don’t know what you’re lookin’ at when you’re lookin’ here”. Audrey II represents consumerism, capitalism, multiplicity, and so much more.

That said, the giant American flag and American cities in the “Don’t Feed the Plants” number, makes it super clear that this is a warning for and about America, particularly the American dream and culture. While it’s implied that Audrey II eventually takes over the world, the film only focuses on America. This centers its critique on Americana, particularly in the final shot, where Audrey II covers the Statue of Liberty with greed. That’s right, green and greed are the same thing in Little Shop. Audrey II is both green and a living embodiment of greed. You cannot separate these terms in the film.

Audrey II represents capitalism, as it feeds off the poor in Skid Row before leveling the neighborhood and moving on. During the final confrontation, Audrey uproots the store, causing it to collapse. The product has overpowered the means of production, not just the literal store but also Seymour and humans. It’s also mastered our weapons and tools, like when the plant spins Seymour’s gun and begins skillfully shooting at him. Audrey II is no longer just a means of production (helping Seymour fulfill his dreams), but the owner of production (the world).

“Poor! All My Life I’ve Always Been Poor!”

In addition to capitalism, the original ending focuses on greed and money, and suggests that the term ‘Green’ is a metaphor for money. When Audrey sings about “Somewhere That’s Green”, she is actually referring to a stable income and suburban life. Her dream isn’t just to be happy with Seymour, it is to become a commercial, with all the expensive and new products you see on TV. The same goes for “Grow for Me”, where Audrey II’s greenery and growth is connected to Seymour’s financial situation. The more Audrey II grows, the more money Seymour and Mr. Mushnik have. This means that the song “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” is about an uncaring economic system, where those who can’t keep up are devoured. The film also emphasizes this reading by showing two different hectic crowds in the original ending, first the customers trying to buy an Audrey II, and then the civilians trying to escape Audrey II’s destruction. As we see customers flocking to the stores, the Fates sing “And the plants proceeded to grow and grow”, which refers to both Audrey II’s rise to power, but also to the increasing greed and lack of morality growing in the American public. Like Seymour, each of these customers will be sweet talked by the plant and feed it blood.

If no one paid any attention to the plant, if no one fed it, then it would never succeed. It needs humans, to a certain point. The film juxtaposes the customers with the fleeing crowd in this final scene to highlight how this destruction is everyone’s fault, not just Seymour. Everyone failed to recognize that Audrey II was a threat, and so this destruction is their own fault.

The film examines a literal green-eyed monster as well as the metaphoric kind. Every character deals with a form of jealousy in the film, as Seymour is jealous of the Dentist, Audrey is jealous of the people she reads about in magazines, and Mushnik is jealous of more successful businesses. This makes them prone to the embodiment of jealously, the green-eyed or at least green leafed monster. It additionally makes them blind to Audrey II’s real intentions, as their needs are so overpowering that they overlook every red flag. The original cut illustrates this right after Audrey II eats Seymour, as it takes a few sinister gulps, and then spits out Seymour’s cracked and dusty glasses. They land right in front of the camera, and we get this shot of the glasses in the foreground and the plant in the background. This moment symbolizes both Seymour and America’s blindness to a violent and uncaring economic system, as Seymour’s blindness/single minded perception has finally caught up with him. I find it interesting that although the film focuses on sight, Audrey II has no eyes. That implies that the plant sees things differently than we do and is so alien to us that it would never uphold whatever moral systems we have. It’s arrogant to assume that it would.

“Every household in America”

The Fates appear in full judges’ regalia during “Don’t Feed the Plants”, which implies that Audrey II’s ascension is an almost biblical final judgement. Like so many apocalypse movies, the end of the world is a moral judgement, but on what exactly? I would argue that the film contains multiple judgy figures, even in its earliest moments. Right after the opening number, “Skid Row”, Mr. Mushnik yells at a group of young girls outside of his shop (the same actresses who play the Fates). He tells them they should be in school, and that they need to better themselves, which introduces the driving force in the film. Characters want to better themselves, to become more than what they already are. Even Audrey II wants to grow and become a stronger adversary. However, by trying to become something else, the characters end up judging people who have less than them and those who have more. People judge Seymour because he seems so meek. Seymour goes on to judge the Dentist for hurting Audrey and takes the law into his own hands by executing him. There is also a lot of failed judgement in the film, as characters consistently misjudge Audrey II.

So, is this a moral lesson? The theatrical ending appears to have a moral: be good and good will come. I am not sure the same can be said of this original ending. At first glance, it seems like the film suggests that we can prevent Audrey II by not doing what Seymour did. The song mentions the viewer multiple times, warning “But whatever they offer you, don’t feed the plants”. However, the excessive focus on destruction and death in this scene implies that violence is inevitable. Audrey II’s destruction and domination lasts for nearly 10 minutes, and Seymour’s death drags on, with plenty of shots of his terrified face. This level of violence makes Audrey II feel immense to the viewer, like there is absolutely no hope in defeating the plant. Had the film ended right after the plant eats Seymour, there might have been some speculation that people would band together and defeat the plants once they realized what was happening. But, by showing the consequences of Seymour’s failure, the film implies that humans will always do what Seymour did, and that they are too greedy to save humanity.

I don’t think the original ending has a moral, I think it is more of an observation. Seymour isn’t the only person who listens to Audrey II, and even those who didn’t listen to the plant die, as just enough people did. The film ends with Audrey II’s laughter, laughing at the characters failed judgement yet need to judge but also at their attempts to warn the audience. This warning isn’t enough, as Audrey II is already here, bursting through the screen and into the viewer’s world. The film tries to stop Audrey II from coming through, as it puts up the title card “THE END?!?”, signaling that the film is over, and the threat is contained to the film’s narrative. However, Audrey II charges through the sign, still laughing but now at the audience. In fact, the final shot in the film is the camera zooming towards Audrey II’s mouth as it leans out of the screen. This implies that the viewer has also been devoured by Audrey II, and that we never stood a chance. We sat there, watched, and judged Seymour, and so the film asks us to do more than judge. Again, this returns to the multi phenomenon in the film, as we now have two spaces where Audrey II inhabits: the film’s world and our own. By entering our world in these final moments, the film suggests that Audrey II, and everything that it represents, already exists around us, and that our judgement could appear at any moment. It’s up to the audience to decide if they will accept this ending, or ask for a happier one, just as the theatrical cut demonstrates. If you accept the original without judgement, and more importantly, accept its commentary, perhaps there is some hope in stamping out an early Audrey II.