You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Everyone likes a yarn with a happy (or at least satisfying) ending. With the exception of artsy foreign films and ruminative Russian novels, the Western entertainment mainstream usually tries to put a positive spin on bad situations, giving a sense that, if not ideally, justice was somehow imperfectly done.

I see this a lot in my psychiatric practice – a desire that events turn out just the way they should, or that things aren’t really that bad. Call it the Ostrich Syndrome. A lot of problems stem from the fact that people view the world, and their relationships, the way they want them to be, and not by the light of reality.

Take-home message: sometimes there are bad endings. Unfair endings. Endings that are sad and leave one feeling empty and lost. And the villain gets away.

Just grow up and deal with it.

Unless, of course, you complain loudly enough, in which case you can count on the ending you desire.

Before it was a Hollywood hit and Oscar-nominated musical in 1986, Little Shop of Horrors was a campy 1960 low-budget cult flick which is rumored to have cost only $30,000 to make and was completed in a matter of days.

[Quick trivia: which now-famous A-list actor had one of his first screen roles in the 1960 film? Answer: Jack Nicholson]

For those of you who live in caves, the plot revolves around an orphaned nerd, Seymour Krelborn, who toils in a rundown florist shop in a seedy neighborhood of Gotham. His dream girl, Audrey, is the cashier, and the owner, Mr Mushnick, is a humorless penny-pinching grouch. Business is so bad that Mushnick decides to close the store, until Audrey suggests that Seymour show the boss a “strange and interesting plant” that mysteriously appeared following a solar eclipse. The odd spud in the window starts to attract business. Lots of business. Until one day it looks ill, and Mushnick orders Seymour to stay with the plant – now the business’ lifeblood – to nurse it back to health.

Pun intended re: ‘lifeblood.’ You see, the plant, named Audrey II by Seymour in honor of his squeeze, feeds and thrives on human blood. A few drops at first, but with a growing appetite.

don't feed the plant

don’t feed the plant

You can see where this is going.

True to the off-off-Broadway theatrical production spawned by the 1960 movie, in the first 1986 version the plant eventually grows to monstrous proportions, eating both Audrey and Seymour, and taking over the world. As the 1986 remake was nearing completion, after millions of dollars of expense, the excited studio set up a test screening in San Jose, California.

Frank Oz, the giant plant’s puppet-master, later recounted: “For every musical number there was applause. [The audience] loved it. It was just fantastic. Until Seymour and Audrey [were eaten], and then the theater became a refrigerator, an ice box. It was awful and the [feedback] cards were just awful. You have to get at least a 55% ‘recommend’ rating for the studio to release a film, and that night we got 13%. It was a complete disaster. I learned a lesson. In a stage play, you kill the leads and they come out for a bow. In a movie, they don’t come out for a bow because they’re dead. The [movie] audience lost the people they loved… and they hated us for it.”

A second test screening in Los Angeles the following week resulted in 12% positive. And then nasty letters and phone calls began to arrive at the studio. People started to complain. Loudly. The entire project was in jeopardy.

Back to the drawing board.

The 23-minute finale had to be reshot before any hope of national distribution. In it, Seymore and Audrey come out victorious and live happily ever after. And that’s how it was released. Totally saccharine.

But it worked. Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a 90% positive based on critics’ reviews. The print media was effusive with praise. Even the late great crusty Roger Ebert gave it two thumbs up.

But the studio production team wanted that original dark ending back.

In 2012, copies of the first macabre ending were uncovered in storage, apparently saved from the sweepings of the cutting room floor. Within months, Little Shop of Horrors was released in DVD format as a “Director’s Cut,” the way that was at first intended: plant victory.

And (home) audiences hate it all over again.

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