Friday, June 14, 2013

Roger Corman’s Drive-In: How “Little Shop of Horrors” Got Found, and Got Copyrighted

Well, now that summer’s almost here, it’s time for some drive-in movies. Of course, flicks you watch from your car are pretty much a thing of the past. But B-movie maven Roger Corman has just launched his very own YouTube subscription channel, which has been aptly dubbed “Corman’s Drive-In.”  For a mere $3.99 per month, subscribers can enjoy old movies culled from the Corman archives. First up is a rarity, 1958’s The Cry Baby Killer, in which Jack Nicholson made his screen debut. It will be followed by a Corman classic, the original Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop, of course, is the two-day wonder that was cranked out by Roger to take advantage of sets left standing when another production wrapped. Chuck Griffith dashed off the story of a dimwitted flower-shop assistant who breeds a plant that thrives on human blood. The young Jack Nicholson joined forces with Corman regulars Jonathan Haze, Dick Miller, and Mel Welles in this gruesome but hilarious farce. The budget totaled about $27,500, and the film’s threadbare look became part of the fun.

Typically, Roger didn’t get around to copyrighting his quickie movie. But when Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s musical version of Little Shop became an off-Broadway hit in 1982, he discovered that his earlier laxness was now costing him money. Television stations were frequently airing his 1960 film, and people were even circulating pirated home video versions. In order to sell his own authorized videos, Roger needed to locate the master print. But given the chaotic state of record-keeping at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures, no one had any idea where it was. It fell to a young staff editor named Steve Barnett to track down the elusive print.

As usual, Roger had never bothered to make what’s called an “interpositive” as a backup in case of damage. Steve has detailed for me how he located the original Little Shop cut negative at a film lab’s storage facility. The optical soundtrack was also there, but not the “three-stripe,” the magnetic tape of the dialogue, music, and effects soundtracks. An optical soundtrack is celluloid, and can be extremely fragile when it’s old. Steve remembers that “I was deathly afraid to put the soundtrack into the printer, for fear it would crumble and we would lose it forever.”

Fortunately, Roger’s brother Gene suggested that the magnetic tape of the film might be in the vault at a local sound lab, possibly stored under another name. So Steve’s sleuthing continued: “Down there in the basement of Ryder Sound in Hollywood, dusting off all these old boxes, we found this one stack that said, ‘Passionate People Eater’—barely visible. The ink was on masking tape and it was evaporating. So we almost didn’t know what it was.” It was, in fact, the object of Steve’s search, labeled with the film’s working title. After his eureka moment, he quickly went to work making copies of Little Shop’s various elements: “I wanted as much protection for it as I could get, as much for Roger’s own good as for what I felt was this amazing piece of film history. I was just thrilled to be able to protect something that I’d watched as a kid on television. And so if you buy the authorized video now, it’s this pristine, beautiful copy. I don’t think Roger knew I went as far as a fine-grain interpositive and an internegative—but he knows now, so there you go.”

Sounds like Corman’s Drive-In owes Steve Barnett a big debt of gratitude. And a generous reward — but that’s hardly Roger’s style.


  1. Passionate People Eater! I never knew that was the working title!

  2. Believe me, I had no idea -- until I talked to Steve. Thanks for writing, Gratteciella.

  3. Sounds like Roger Corman is one of the luckiest guys walking the face of the Earth. And certainly, he's surrounded himself with smart people. I think he needs to include "Notes from Beverly in Movieland" along with the 30 monthly movies, clips and interviews.
    Also I didn't realize he had a 400 film library.

  4. Thanks, Rox. But I don't think Roger is thinking too kindly about me these days. All signs point to the fact that he doesn't like my book, not because of what's in it but because I wouldn't let him take control of it. The updated edition of my Corman biography, "Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers" (now a Kindle ebook and soon to be an unexpurgated paperback) contains the full story of how Roger has tried to punish me in the last few years. Sad but true.

  5. Yay for the paperback!!! Now I can buy one!!! :D

    I do love LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. It used to come on television frequently, so I was able to see it a few times as a kid. Despite the man-eating plant, the pain-loving dental patient and that bizarre ending, one of the things that stood out to me was Dick Miller's Walter Paisley and his penchant for eating flowers.

    I remember bugging my dad in 1986 when the musical remake came out. He hated musicals, but we went to see it anyway and I really enjoyed that version, too.

    Great story, Beverly, on how this film was reclaimed, so to speak. I wasn't even aware it had been copyrighted. I thought it was still a PD title.

  6. Every story connected with this movie is fascinating. I got to hang out with Mel Welles in the 90's on a couple of shows when his wife Annie was the script supervisor and he would come visit our sets - he was a wonderful guy to talk to - always quick with a quip and great stories of the movies he made for Mr. Corman.

    Steve Barnett is my hero. I haven't picked up the official release - because I assumed (and who could blame me?) that the disc would feature a standard issue washed out VHS port - I never in a million years would have thought Mr. Corman would have a brand new master struck from the negative. And I guess neither would he! So thank you Steve Barnett.

    And thank YOU, Ms. G - may Vurson Fouch take you out for a nice lunch of flowers down at Mushnik's...

  7. Actually, Brian, though Dick Miller played Walter Paisley in the wonderful Bucket of Blood, as well in films by several Corman alumni, he had a different name in Little Shop: Burson Fouch.

    1. Oh, that's right! Apologies for mixing up the names. I should've known better. :p

  8. And I see I neglected to respond to Mr. Craig's praise of Mel Welles. Indeed he was a wonderful guy, though in his later years a bit difficult to lunch with. (He'd gotten so rotund that bits of his lunch dribbled down his shirt front, which I didn't find too appetizing.) He was clearly a very good friend to the mercurial and perennially broke Chuck Griffith. Too bad they're both gone now.

  9. Many of you had high praise for Steve Barnett, who rescued the original Little Shop of Horrors cut negative from oblivion. I shared my post with Steve, who saw fit to embellish the story, as follows:

    "During Steve's hunt for this sound track, he checked at all the usual facilities, including Ryder Sound, where the vault records (three huge Rolodex's on the front counter) revealed nothing of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. On hearing this Roger, called his brother, Gene, who insisted that the mix had been done at Ryder, maybe under a different name. Steve called New World alumnae Jon Davison, Allan Arkush, and Miller Drake and one of them allowed that the original title was something like 'The Passionate People Eater.' Armed with this information, Steve returned to Ryder to search in the vault itself. Down there in the basement . . ."

    Steve went on to write, "There, I added character, conflict and drama, like you always told us to do when you were Roger's story editor. Great to hear from you. Keep the flame alive."

  10. I loved this post before. Now with the added character, conflict, and drama - I somehow love it EVEN MORE!!! Thank you for the "Additional Material" Mr. Barnett!

    And as always thank YOU, Ms. G!

  11. I'm delighted that Steve paid heed to the lessons I tried to impart to everyone who passed through my office.