Shadowvision: “LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS” (1986)Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black-and-white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
Although it’s been nearly a decade since it’s bow, hardcore FANGORIA fans may remember that Roger Corman himself called in to the third episode of SiriusXM’s FANGORIA Radio. While on the air, the subject of film colorization came up, as Corman’s 1960 black and white classic LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS had famously been colorized twice, the most recent time having been through fellow guest Mike Nelson’s Legend Pictures. And while many have rallied against film colorization (including, ironically, this writer), Corman himself has publicly stated that he has no issue with the process, justifying it with the notion that the colorized version does not remove the original version from the public consciousness.
And it’s to that point that we embark on this week’s Shadowvision, and in a way, bring LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986) back to its black and white roots. Of course, both films are as different as night and day: while Corman’s version is much more straightforward to its premise, Oz’s version is incredibly colorful and more committed to the musical adaptation of the story. Yet both films share plenty of visual and narrative similarities, and even though the experience would miss out on certain visual cues, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS seemed to be prime real estate for this particular column.
As always, let’s address our technical issues before we move along to the rest of the column for those playing along at home. First off, much like last week, the aesthetics of the film lead to a higher contrast this time around, even though one must be careful to not blow out the whites. As such, the brightness needs virtually no increasing as you run the risk of filling out the shadows with artificial grayness.
While the comic book-esque relation to color left this writer going into the project with heft cynicism, I was surprised by just how well much of the movie played in black and white. First of all, the film is much more reminiscent of the original in monochrome, as both films carry visual styles that simulate a stage production experience, and even the characters themselves feel more appropriate to black and white. Secondly, the film’s B-movie inspiration, from the leather-clad dentist to the giant carnivorous plant, all feel tonally at home in black in white, which cancels out the atmospheric problems that plagued last week’s ‘80s entry. But, perhaps in the mother of all ironies, the main reason the film plays well without color is the musical numbers, which feel right at home with a golden age black and white musical, especially one with a dark streak like LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.
Furthermore, Frank Oz’s direction is surprisingly accommodating to black and white, as many of his stylistic decisions work very well without color. Oz’s use of practical production design and SFX make gives the film’s B-movie inspiration more credibility, which appears even more organic to the story in black and white. Furthermore, Oz and cinematographer Robert Paynter’s use of shadowing in the film is expert, especially in the more horror-bound scenes including the body dismembering and Mushnik’s death scene, and it feels evocative of classic Universal horror in black and white. And even the universe itself, as exaggerated as it is, feels more fitting for black and white, especially in terms of setting up Skid Row as a dirty environment, and once again when Howard Ashman’s screenplay takes aim at commercialism and pop culture.
However, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986) doesn’t hit all the right notes in black and white. Of course, the experience just isn’t the same, as the flamboyant look of the picture is now completely muted, which hinders some of the choreographed moments and musical cues (especially “Somewhere That’s Green”). Likewise, the production design, from the glowing neon signs to the beautiful costumes to intricate set, lacks the depth and flair that is so incredibly apparent and appreciated in color. And even the horror of the piece is somewhat hindered by black and white; frankly speaking, the Audrey II is scarier in color, feeling much more like a living, breathing creation as opposed to a SFX monster.
Yet, in a strange turn of events, this black-and-white examination of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986) is even more complicated by what version you’re watching. For the theatrical cut, the absence of color is much more distracting, especially considering that the “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” number leads to a happier and more innocuous “love conquers all” ending. But for the director’s cut, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986) plays much more organically without color, especially once the film’s out-and-out B-movie ending comes into play.
In conclusion, while LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986) in black and white might be sacrilege to some of it’s ardent cult fans, the film surprisingly works with or without color. Both experiences are sincerely different, and even those experiences can atmospherically differ between the theatrical and director’s cut. It all comes down to your outlook of the film: if you prefer the film’s colorful neo-pulp musical look, stay with color, but if you prefer the B-movie monster flick that the film is at heart, feel free to desaturate and hit play.
Recommended for Black and White Consumption?: Yes.