In the ending of Little Shop Of Horrors that screened in theaters in 1986, alien plant Audrey II is defeated. The music swells. Seymour Krelborn emerges from the dust and rubble, adjusts his glasses, and whisks Audrey I to the generic comforts of 1960s suburbia. The final image is of a small, smiling, freshly sprouted flytrap in the garden bed.
It wasn’t meant to end that way.
For nearly 30 years, fans of the film and its source material have been tormented by the knowledge that an entirely different ending had been shot, one darker, grander, and truer to the intentions of director Frank Oz, screenwriter Howard Ashman, and composer Alan Menken: an ending in which, as in the Off-Broadway musical before it and the 1960 Roger Corman movie before that, the plant devours Seymour and Audrey, then wreaks havoc on the world in terrific fashion.
At the first test screening of Little Shop Of Horrors in San Jose, the audience loved it. They even applauded after musical numbers, as Off-Broadway audiences had done. But then the lead characters died, and the plant won. In Oz’s own recollection, it was a disaster: “The theater became a refrigerator, an ice box.” Menken thought the screening had gone well until he clocked Geffen’s reaction. Typically with test screenings, recommendation scores falling below 55 percent are cause for serious concern. According to Oz, who claims to have kept the audience’s vote cards, the film scored a 13. It only fared slightly better in a second test screening, held in vain, in Los Angeles.
Consequently, some 23 minutes of footage was scrapped. Oz made the difficult phone call to Richard Conway, whose visual-effects team had labored on the climactic sequence for almost a year. (Conway has said that, for his part, he immediately went into denial. Unfortunately, his next project, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, was beset by financial catastrophe on an even more monumental scale.) With Warner Bros. understandably reluctant to release the film as it was, Oz and Ashman knew what had to be done. A new, happy ending was written—including another celebrity cameo from Jim Belushi—shot in about three weeks, and tacked on. The insertion occurs at the beginning of what used to be Audrey’s dramatic death scene: “I’m okay!” she says in the theatrically released version, getting back to her feet. The bloody stain on her dress from a moment ago, and apparently the fatal wound, have disappeared without a trace.
Entirely discarding the ending—still one of the most expensive deleted pieces of footage ever—instead of incorporating more of the original footage into the rewrite might seem like throwing the botany out with the bathwater. But by that point, Oz and Ashman probably weren’t in the mood to take any chances. The only clue to the film’s wicked former glory was that final cheeky shot of the baby Audrey II budding—a B-movie punchline so instantly familiar that, for example, it was essentially replicated two years later in another movie about an extraterrestrial life form with a fearsome appetite, the 1988 remake of The Blob. As the filmmakers’ own enthusiasm wilted, audience satisfaction shot up. “Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war,” Oz has said.
Below you can watch the whole ending as it was intended.