The BSMC is taking the week off to attend a wedding in the wild woods of Massachusetts. We’ll be back next week with Breathless!
The BSMC is taking the week off to attend a wedding in the wild woods of Massachusetts. We’ll be back next week with Breathless!
Horror is arguably the genre that lends itself best to repetition. At its best, it inspires the adrenaline rush that comes with fear, and when if it’s not on its A-game, it at least offers the opportunity to laugh at what would frighten us in reality. It is a genre based on catharsis, and audiences don’t really mind if they’ve seen it before, because it’s hard be totally unaffected by blood and guts and things that go bump in the night.
Thrillers are a different story. The genre is built for complicated, twisting plotlines and success hinges on the ability of the director and cast to manifest the psychology of the characters on some external, filmable level. No help from monsters or axe murderers. When they done well, thrillers offer an even greater release – perhaps because of their stronger ties to reality – but when the chemistry is off, dreaded adjectives like “overwrought” enter the discussion.
Both filmed versions of Cape Fear are based on John D. MacDonald’s 1957 novel The Executioners. In it, Max Cady, a brutal rapist has just been paroled from prison and made it his business to find, threaten, and terrorize Sam Bowden (the lawyer who he believes is responsible for putting him away) and Bowden’s wife and teenage daughter. The two films have the same characters, setting, plot, score, and even a few cast members, but they somehow manage to defy direct comparison to each other.
J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 Cape Fear stars Gregory Peck as Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum as Max Cady. You couldn’t ask for a better good vs. evil Hollywood match-up. Peck does that righteous, strong, yet sensitive thing he does. Mitchum slinks around in saggy white suits, wavering between delivering sleazy wry asides with suggestive eyebrow raises and the sneering brute physicality of a great noir heavy. Thompson really focuses on keeping these two men on opposite ends of the ethical spectrum. Cady might know the letter of the law as well as his opponent, but he uses it to manipulate and terrorize, shoving Bowden’s (and the viewer’s) noses into the stink of technicalities with a crooked smirk. Bowden is unflappably good, when his moral compass wavers by even a few degrees, it is quickly righted. He never really has any doubt that he is the fine law-abiding American citizen that he projects, and neither do we.
In 1991, Scorcese positions his Bowden and Cady a bit differently. As Cady, Robert DeNiro creates an unforgettable character. The tattoos, the Hawaiian shirt, the grinning maw full of stumpy teeth*, and an overtly expressed sexuality countered by Pentecostal fervency. He steals the show, but it’s mainly smoke and mirrors. In this Cape Fear, Cady is a catalyst, but it’s up to Nick Nolte, as Bowden, to be both the protagonist and antagonist. This is a “modern American man”, his confident facade concealing countless flaws, failings, insecurities, and weaknesses.
The 90s Bowden is revealed through his relationship with the women of Cape Fear. Diametrically opposed to the bland, helpless Bowden women** of the 1962 version, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis, as Leigh and Danielle Bowden, define the course of Scorcese’s story. Lewis got an Oscar nod for her performance, which is maybe the best portrayal of Nabokov’s Lolita on film – all gawky angles and gracelessly performed sexuality, she rides that particularly teenaged line between child and adult perfectly. As Bowden’s apparently emotionally fragile wife, Lange is equally well-cast, bringing her natural, earthy quality to the role. Through the end of the second act of the film, Bowden seems like the strongest force in the family, protecting the women from Cady’s sadistic intentions. However, his strength is an illusion, and as his increasingly desperate machinations continually fail him, the women emerge as the only hope of the family’s survival. In the final, violent act of the film, Bowden lies helplessly beaten to near-unconsciousness by Cady as the family’s houseboat spins towards almost certain disaster in the treacherous waters of Cape Fear, and Leigh and Danielle are forced to literally jump ship to save their lives. Bowden’s eventual triumph – such that it is – is completely due to luck, when Cady, trapped on the doomed vessel is taken under by the fierce current. Bowden is left a broken man, hunched over, shivering on the banks of the river alone. It’s a far cry from the ending of the 1961 version, where Gregory Peck’s Bowden makes a conscious decision to leave Cady’s fate up to the law after successfully keeping his family unit in tact.
From a psychological standpoint, Scorcese’s remake is more interesting. Imbued with layer upon layer of nuance, the characters are much more fully-realized. But when you get down to it, Thompson’s original take is just more thrilling. When Mitchum’s Max Cady corners Bowden’s daughter, he is a terrifying force. DeNiro’s version with all the tics and thumbsucking innuendo ends up being a little campy. On top of that, Scorcese’s obvious reverence for his source material and tendency to inject his legendarily encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic references into his work weaken the 1991 version as a thriller. It’s hard to get really engaged with the drama when you have Vertigo knock-off shots and winky cameos by both Mitchum and Peck popping up in the middle of things.
All this isn’t to say that Scorcese’s Cape Fear is unsuccessful, it’s just that it’s not really a thriller. Reframe it as a horror movie, and you’ve got a massively – almost gratuitously – entertaining film. There’s throat-slitting and general brutality galore, all in glorious Technicolor. It just comes down to knowing what ride you want to take. Whether you’re in it for cheap thrills or real ones, there’s a Cape Fear for you.
*In his classically intense style, DeNiro paid a dentist $20,000 to file his teeth down for the role of Cady, which begs the question – what are DeNiro’s teeth like today?
**No offense to Polly Bergen and Lori Martin. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, and Lori Martin especially delivers with the limited support given to her by the script and director.
Bernard Herrmann’s score for the original Cape Fear proved to be so effective at amplifying the psychological suspense that Scorcese just couldn’t help but use it as a base for the score of the remake. Hermann is a Hollywood legend, having composed scores for countless classic films. Notably collaborating with Orson Welles – his first film score was for Citizen Kane – and Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo, North By Northwest), Herrmann was a strong personality in his own right, demanding that his often illustrious directors stay out of the way. Herrmann was an innovative orchestrator who took advantage of the unique psychological power that the medium of film offered composers, liberating them from the restrictions posed by traditional concert hall performance. From his early adoption of electronic instruments (see the score for The Day The Earth Stood Still) to the Taxi Driver score with it’s traffic-evoking, neo-noir horn theme, Herrmann is always on point.
J. Lee Thompson’s first pick for the role of Sam Bowden’s teenage daughter Nancy was Haley Mills, who, hot off of her iconic role in The Parent Trap, turned the role down. A wise choice for the original Disney sensation. In the end, Lori Martin, an actress who was then best known for her starring role in the TV-movie adaptation of the girl-with-a-horse classic Black Beauty, was cast in the role. Fourteen years old at the time of the film’s production, Martin is uncomfortably childlike – though she is supposed to be a teenager in the movie, there is nothing resembling the self-aware, sexually-awakened, Lolita-informed version of Nancy that Juliette Lewis plays in the 1991 remake. It’s an effective choice, reflecting most directly on how we see the villain Max Cady – no questions of gray area exist in Thompson’s Cape Fear. The skin-crawling scene where Cady stalks Nancy at school is the catalytic moment that shoots us into the third act, leaving all the legal technicalities in the dust in a fight for the Bowdens’ survival.
1991 was really Nick Nolte’s golden year. With two mega-hits at the box office - The Prince of Tides and Cape Fear – Nolte was poised to join the ranks of Harrison Ford and Robert Redford as perennially handsome All-American men. He even earned People Magazine’s coveted “Sexiest Man Alive” designation in 1992. Even legendary Hollywood playboy Warren Beatty testified to Nolte’s charm, quipping ”He’s got much more sex appeal than I do.” So let’s take a moment with A-game Nolte, and ignoring the fact that a few years later we’d get a version that was less Sam Bowden and more Max Cady.
Little Shop of Horrors (1960) is all over the place. It was billed as a dark comedy but I wonder if it holds this classification in order to justify it’s total lack of cohesion. Directed by Roger Corman and written by Charles B. Griffith, this expert piece of schlock was filmed in two days for $30 thousand. In classic fashion, it seems as if Corman and Griffith threw as many kinds of jokes at a wall and what stuck is what we get.
Sometimes it is a noir spoof with a deadpan voice-over and a jazzy soundtrack. Sometimes it leans heavily on the Jewish accents and Borscht Belt jokes – Seymore’s hypochondriac nagging mother, Mrs. Sitti Shiva’s endless line of dying relatives. And in the instance of Wilbur Force, the comedic intention is decidedly sick. Even though the jokes are firing on all cylinders, none of them are actually very funny. Instead, what comes across is stale comedic timing and odd plot developments that spring seemingly from nowhere. Surprisingly (or not) I loved it.
The humor is in the details, the spaces between the terrible punchlines. The film begins with a voice-over from “Fink, Sgt. Joe Fink” – a blatant spoof of the hugely popular police-glorifying TV show Dragnet. The gag only lasts for a couple of seconds before it is abandoned and we dive right into the action at Mushnick’s flower shop where no crimes have been committed. Occasionally, throughout the film, Sgt. Joe Fink’s voiceover returns incongruously accompanying police scenes of cops bantering at HQ. But still, they do not further they action. Why include these moments? Why add the voiceover?
As Seymour’s mysterious plant Audrey Jr. grows and grows, she attracts customers to the usually abandoned flower shop. Her biggest fans are two co-eds planning a float for the annual Pasadena Rose Bowl parade. These girls can’t get enough of her, repeatedly returning to Mushnick’s flower shop to plan the increasingly elaborate float and to admire the increasingly revolting Audrey Jr. What do the ponytailed teens see in Audrey Jr.? Why are they drawn to her so?
As the action continues, it becomes more ridiculous. Despite Seymour’s best intentions and a few incidents of murder, Audrey Jr.’s hunger is insatiable. Although Seymour becomes obstinate, she is desperate. And in her best baritone, she hypnotizes Seymour into killing a hooker to bring back for dinner. The hard boiled Skid Row tone returns along with a jazzy beatnik soundtrack. Seymour is wanted for murder. How did we get here?
The final moment of the film is hilarious in its utter lack of context. Seymour is missing, last seen pleading with Audrey Jr. to stop asking for food. A crowd gathers at Mushkin’s wondering where on earth Seymour has disappeared to. Audrey Jr. opens one of her buds, and there, imprinted in it’s pistil is Seymour’s face. The bud promptly closes and flops down. There are no tears, no relief, no indication of what could happen next. Just the punchline and then The End.
After watching the pure non-sequitur that is Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Little Shop of Horrors (1986) is a welcome return to order and logic. Like the original version, director Frank Oz begins his film with an incongruous spoof – a take on the Star Wars scrolling text “On the twenty-third day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places…” Although the relevance of this reference is not immediately clear, once Audrey II’s intentions are revealed (she is an alien species on a mission to invade Earth), the space reference suddenly makes sense. Logic prevails making the way for more traditional humor delivered, thankfully, with the expert comic timing of Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Steve Martin. Compared to the irreverence of Roger Corman’s take on the same story, this makes sense: a musical comedy with a happy ending.
Sometimes Little Shop of Horrors (1986) drags a bit, but Frank Oz packs the film with enough aesthetic flash and good casting to avoid any real lull. When Audrey II starts rapping in “Feed Me” Henson ingenuity always swoops in just in time. One needs only to tune out the sound and hone in on her mesmerizing purple ‘mouth’ and the incredible tentacles that seems to move on their own. When I tired of the ‘will they? won’t they?” plot developing between Seymour and Audrey, I was contented to simply listen to the incredible dissonance between Ellen Greene’s squeaky voice and Rick Moranis’ weak sighs. When they finally do get together, the triumphant “Suddenly Seymour” reprise is bolstered by the wonderful overtly constructed set of a rainy alleyway.
Because this version is adapted from the stage, it benefits from a larger budget, and sky high production values. The cast is perfectly populated with members of the rich Chicago comedy scene. Bill Murray is the only one qualified to step in for Jack Nicholson. Because Rick Moranis is the least threatening character actor of all time, Steve Martin is a true menace, rebellious by comparison. This group hits all the right notes resulting in a predictably fun and colorful sing-along.
The two films compliment each other nicely. In 1960 writer Griffith spawned the premise, Roger Corman gave it everything, and they ended up with a weird little movie lacking any and all logic but is fun in its strangeness. Twenty five years later, Frank Oz, David Geffen, and playwright Howard Ashman reorganized the same story, added some causality, packed it to the brim with creative and comedic talent, added a bunch of catchy songs, and changed the ending to a happy one, and then ladies and gentlemen, we got a Hit. Something for everyone.
Movie Club patron saint Jack Nicholson is unforgettable in the first iteration of Little Shop of Horrors. He is Wilbur Force, the masochistic dental patient (later played by Bill Murray in a more restrained performance) who can’t wait to get into the hot seat and have his teeth pulled. Jack is all wiggly limbs and raised eyebrows – it’s a preview of what was to come.
In 1960 he was only 23 and very new to Hollywood. It was Roger Corman who got Nicholson working as an actor, beginning in 1958′s The Cry Baby Killer. Little Shop can be viewed as a sort of debut for him. A wild role in a rare Corman comedy was a great opportunity to show the world what he was made of. He continued to work with on the B circuit, starring in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, The Terror, and Hell’s Angels on Wheels until teaming up with Peter Fonda and Bob Rafelson and the rest of the hippies in the late 1960s. The rest is history, but let’s not let Nicholson’s debt to Corman go unrecognized. As is evident in this clip from Corman’s World, Jack certainly woud not stand for it.
Just so we are clear, we have noted thus far that there are at least four versions of the Little Shop of Horrors story staking their place in pop culture.
There’s the original (and what an original) Roger Corman production, the stage musical, the Frank Oz directed film, and, of course the comic book adaptation. But even within this long list, there are more ‘subtle’ variations. The 1986 Frank Oz film ends happily, Seymour and Audrey are united in their defeat of the evil man-eating plant and it is implied that they live happily ever after. However, this was not always the way it went.
Last year, with Little Shop of Horrors BluRay release came the revelation of the true and original ending to the film. It was a bloodbath. Audrey II eats lovebirds Seymour and Audrey, busts through the walls of the flower shop and somehow hoofs it from Skid Row to New York City where the evil alien plant from outer space wreaks havoc and takes over the world, but the upbeat Broadway soundtrack doesn’t quit. Here, take a look:
Apparently this ending didn’t test well and producer David Geffen decided it just had to be a happy ending. But I don’t know. Anything that increases the Wilhelm scream count is an improvement in my book. I might just prefer the original remake.
When Little Shop of Horrors transforms into a musical, Audrey Jr. is renamed Audrey II (thus making way for sequels and sequels). Although Audrey Jr. is charming enough, it is clearly just an animatronic piece of foam spray painted green. Audrey II, however is a masterpiece conceived by the best in the biz. Although it was not technically a creation of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the film was director Frank Oz’s first non-Henson production. The elaborate Audrey II puppet was created without any flashy special effects, just the ingenuity of designer Lyle Conway and principle puppeteer Brian Henson. And although Audrey II is quite a beautiful and exotic flower, don’t be misguided. She is voiced by the baritone Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops (who looks great in sequins).