Earlier this summer, the human race encountered a deadly threat to its very existence, and this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the most seemingly innocent and unlikely of places: the drive-in.
Specifically, Nova Scotia’s Valley Drive-In, which sits smack in the middle of the province’s picturesque agricultural heartland, the Annapolis Valley. It was ’50s Night, and many in the crowd—which was near-capacity—were wearing varsity sweaters or poodle skirts or driving lovingly refurbished vintage cars. Everybody was there to see the musical double feature of Grease and Little Shop Of Horrors, both retro ’50s visions in their own right. Popcorn and soda were purchased, and then, as the sun sank below the treetops, everybody settled in to their cars or folding chairs for the first feature, thoroughly unaware of the trauma to come.
Grease unspooled first and went off without a hitch. Then came Little Shop, looking sharp and brassy on the big outdoor screen. A number of families with small children left during the opening credits, the hour having gotten too late for a second feature. But many other families stayed. Presumably more than a few parents were eager to introduce their kids to a childhood favorite of their own.
As the movie played out, everybody seemed attentive, and the mid-film musical number featuring Steve Martin as a gleefully sadistic dentist terrorizing his patients got such a hearty response that you could hear the laughter even through closed car windows. (Ditto for Bill Murray’s cameo.) But then, just before the happily-ever-after conclusion, it happened.
Audrey (Ellen Greene) got pulled from the plant’s jaws by Seymour (Rick Moranis), just like she’s supposed to, but then she collapsed and sang a trembling, minor-key reprise of “Somewhere That’s Green.” I was in the audience that night, and I thought to myself, “I don’t remember her singing in this scene.” Then Audrey told Seymour to feed her to the plant when she’s dead. And then she died. My stomach flip-flopped. They were running the director’s cut by mistake!
I stared wide-eyed out the window at all the other cars, trying vainly to gauge the psychic tremors. How many childhoods destroyed? (“Daddy, why is Seymour feeding Audrey to Audrey II?”) How many fond memories desecrated? (“Is Seymour going to the roof to commit suicide?!”) I felt like Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park, looking on helplessly as the T. rex terrorizes Lex and Tim. These are just innocent people! They don’t know from director’s cuts!
For my part, I’d seen this original ending before via black and white YouTube clips, but I still wasn’t prepared for how it’d play in context. Not to belabor the point, but it’s devastating. Moranis’ rumpled Seymour and Greene’s bubbly Audrey are perhaps the most irresistible leads in movie history—name a more charming screen duo, I defy you—and it’s simply too much to watch them come to such horrible ends. Audrey’s fate—Seymour reluctantly slides her dead body ever so gently into the plant’s jaws—is at least poignant. But Seymour’s death is excruciating. In the original off-Broadway play, Seymour grabs an ax and jumps into the plant’s mouth to hack it to bits; he fails, but at least he goes down swinging. Here, the plant simply mocks Seymour, trusses him up with his tendrils, then lowers him—agonizingly slowly—down his laughing, gaping maw. Our hero is helpless the whole time, and the look of terror on his face as he dies is practically unbearable. You wish you could un-see it.
The friend who was with me had never seen Little Shop before, so I waited until it was over to explain to him why I was losing my shit. After I filled him in, he agreed the ending was sad, but he didn’t see how it could have ended any other way. “The whole ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ thing wouldn’t make any sense,” he said.
He’s right, of course. The tale is pitched from the start as a cautionary one, and it never really made sense for Seymour and Audrey to find wedded bliss (as they do in the theatrical release) after such grim events. (Seymour may not directly kill anyone, but he’s complicit in the deaths of both the dentist and the flower shop owner, Mr. Mushnik.) But I still think this is one of those incredibly rare times when test audiences—who hated the original ending—got it right.
Little Shop is a summary lesson in the differences between a play and a film. In a play, we don’t get as physically close to the actors as we do in a movie, and we just don’t develop as close a bond. We may feel for the stage versions of Seymour and Audrey when they meet their ends, but we probably won’t feel gutted. What transpires on a stage, death included, is explicitly make-believe: We see the strings, as it were, and we know the actors return for their curtain call and do it all over again tomorrow. In film, we see the pain and fear on a character’s face in close up, and when death comes it’s final—never to be undone.
Also, director Frank Oz clearly underestimated just how endearing Greene and Moranis would prove. Greene originated the squeaky-soulful Audrey onstage, and she was presumably just as endearing then, but Moranis took a not overly likable schmuck and gave him a beautiful, sweet soul. Even Seymour’s worst act—dismembering the dead dentist—is forgiven when we see Moranis sitting bolt upright in bed afterwards, quaking and tapping his foot like a hummingbird. But it’s when Greene and Moranis are together that they’re at their sublime best. Their big duet, “Suddenly Seymour,” is meant as a parody of big duets (and it still functions that way), but the two put so much sincerity and tenderness and longing into it that it’s as moving as it is silly. Heroes and lovers get killed off in movies all the time—Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde—but killing off two musical-comedy sweethearts like these is like killing off Popeye and Olive or Fred and Ginger.
Yet it must be conceded: the theatrical ending—Seymour electrocutes the plant, then he and Audrey head off to a suburban dream house—isn’t really satisfying either. Not only does it lack dramatic/thematic sense, it feels rushed and tacked on. Maybe the best ending is no ending at all. Maybe Little Shop is as affecting as it is precisely because it remains unresolved, suspended forever between the “right,” sad ending and the “wrong,” happy one.
But what did the Valley Drive-In’s customers think of that right, sad ending? I didn’t get a chance to ask anyone because the exodus began while Audrey II and his kin were still demolishing New York, and I still felt pinned to my seat. I wrote the manager, a very nice man named Kirk, a few days later—still traumatized—to ask what had happened and if anyone else had been similarly affected. As I suspected, he didn’t know about the switch-up at all. “You are the only one that has even mentioned the alternate ending,” he said. “Dave, our projectionist, is a movie aficionado and goes for all the director’s cuts and special editions. He got the copy of the movie, and while he hasn’t mentioned anything to me I would suspect he did it on purpose! I am sure he will be tickled that you enquired.”
Kirk offered to ask Dave on my behalf. I declined, having decided I preferred not knowing. But a few hours later, I received another email from the Valley Drive-In account. It read, in full: “I always like when the bad guy wins, Scott.”