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Feed Me Dark Comedy

by Anders Runestad


Comedy is funny, but that doesn’t make it happy.


Anyone who peers into life behind the comic curtain finds that comedians aren’t known for their sunny dispositions. The reasons are clear enough. Going through life and finding fault with everything isn’t an optimistic worldview, even as it provides ample material. Humor on stage, screen, in print or anywhere else is of course a stress-relief exercise, a way to face the worst parts of existence that run the gamut from mildly irritating to intolerable. But it can be pointed in any direction, and there is no guarantee that the funny person always plays fair and targets the deserving.


Comedy has really then always had its misuses, abuses, and flirtations with the dark side. And if humor has a tradition of being mordant, then it has also carried a seemingly unlikely connection to horror. The relationship between the two is far less strained than it initially appears. For comedy mocks life’s lesser aspects, laughing in disapproval, while horror just looks directly at fear, pain and other things that shouldn’t be. The emphasis is more detached in the former, but more focused in the latter.


And smack dab right at the nexus of the two is Roger Corman and Charles B. Griffith’s original The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). It doesn’t matter that Corman was motivated by a two-day opportunity to get a film principally wrapped, or that Griffith probably didn’t have the time to think too much about what he was writing. The important thing is to trust the tale more than the tellers, for The Little Shop of Horrors is an ideal combination of the silly and the sickening. And whether low-budget or not, it would be difficult to find a better combination of a great script, able direction, and a solid cast. Corman always knew how to get whatever he had to work with onscreen, and a dearth of money spent was, in this case, no impediment.


Take, for example, the film’s protagonist Seymour Krelborn, and Jonathan Haze’s performance as the awkward, eccentric young man whose cockeyed inventiveness breeds the carnivorous plant Audrey Jr. It’s easy to overlook Haze as Seymour in the midst of so many more peculiar characters who populate the curious world of Gravis Mushnick’s flower shop and the nearby dentist office, all extremely well portrayed. Mel Welles shines as the perpetually aggrieved Mushnick, along with Myrtle Vail as Seymour’s impossible mother, Dick Miller as a customer always chowing down on flowers, and of course Jack Nicholson’s famous appearance as a mental dental patient. But Haze is perfect as Seymour, sympathetic enough to be likeable, yet abnormal enough to believably carry out his darker schemes.


This would be an easy role to get wrong. It would be the obvious thing to make Seymour unlikeable once he decides to keep Audrey Jr. fed at any cost, and slightly less obvious to drift into sentimentality and make Seymour a sad victim of the world around him. But it’s a tribute to Griffith’s script and especially Haze’s performance that the character goes so right in going wrong, remaining convincing the whole way. Seymour is both an awful person and a sad sack, and neither side of the character conveniently disappears to make things easy. He is, in other words, the comedy and horror mixed together—bumbling around physically and insecure emotionally, yet with some of the grim purpose of a tragic character, driving him to ruinous rationalizations in the pursuit of a contented Audrey Jr.


But there wouldn’t be comedy within the dark comedy if Seymour and Audrey Jr. were the only things gone wrong in The Little Shop of Horrors. Rather, Griffith’s script shows a satirical edge towards all of humanity—such as the pair of high school girls who scream in delight for Seymour right to the end. And there is apparently an entire world of people with questionable motivations in Seymour’s vicinity. His own mother manipulates him with her illnesses to the point that he seems to literally believe that all food is medical in purpose. When he tries to get her to like his girlfriend, his mom replies, “Why don’t you get yourself a real female, with something decent like mononucleosis or gallstones?” Seymour’s boss, Mushnick the florist, is likewise dysfunctional with affection, doling out or withdrawing it in relation to perceived success. Initially in awe of Seymour’s creation and the customers it brings in, Mushnick gives him the honor of calling him his son, but then rejects him: “Who you calling ‘Dad’? Who? Who?” But Seymour’s mother and non-father will of course both show up when he is due to receive an award from a fancy botanical society—which is funny, and really horrible. “They’re presenting my son with a trophy,” Seymour’s mom says, to which Dick Miller’s flower-muncher replies, “Yeah? What’d he do, run away from home?”


And yet The Little Shop of Horrors goes further still. For everyone must eat to live, and this is a horror film about the uncomfortable realities of eating. This is emphasized more than once, such as the cutting between Mushnick eating at a restaurant while Seymour feeds Audrey Jr. in the flower shop, and later when Mushnick eats in the shop while Seymour has a disastrous meal at home. Food sustains life, but also begins with something that is no longer alive, and then it ultimately ends with decay. The ravenous needs of Audrey Jr. of course fuel Seymour, driven on by the plant’s repeated groanings of “feed me,” but the film takes the point to its extreme with its other major setting, a dentist office.


This repair shop for teeth contains not only a deranged dentist, but a young Jack Nicholson as a patient who enjoys pain and wants as bad of a dental visit as possible: “Now, no novocaine, it dulls the senses.” A foil to Miller’s character in the flower shop, who literally chews up the pleasant beauty of flowers, Nicholson shows up to get his teeth worked on with anticipation for the mouth pain that most of humanity dreads. The absurdism is the same in each situation, with each character turning the conventional approach to flowers and dentists upside down. But an uncomfortable truth is outlined through these ridiculous characters, for eating truly is a process of grinding up once-living matter, and few get to have their teeth in good shape for long without the discomfort of the dentist’s art.


The Little Shop of Horrors, then, fulfills the function of dark comedy in its situations, its dialogue, and in its depiction of characters who are beyond the pale. But if this macabre brand of humor seems dispiriting, it is good to remember that the glass can be half full as much as half empty. Perhaps we don’t so much need to be advised of life’s harsher realities—which are frequently present from day to day already—but be reminded that sometimes it is okay to laugh at them.

 

Our restored version of The Little Shop of Horrors, an addition to our new The Terror release is available on December 12, 2023. Learn more about the release here: https://www.filmmasters.com/theterror


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