Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Little Globe of Horrors: The Corona Virus is Coming For YOU!

Fears of the Corona virus getting you down? If so, maybe you’d better stay away from the movies. One thing about this widespread popular art form: it often seems to mirror what’s on our collective minds. Horror and science-fiction films in particular often reflect an era’s nightmares: just look at all those nervous 1950s flicks in which a monster (like Godzilla, for instance) seems to stand in for a coming nuclear holocaust.

As a former Roger Corman person, I’ve been involved in more than a few of these cheap but potent disaster films. Mostly, of course, we at Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons were keen on grabbing a piece of the marketplace already occupied by big studio hits. When 20th Century Fox scored with the 1979 outer-space thriller Alien and its 1986 sequel, Aliens, we followed with an earthbound but not-all-that-different rip-off, 1989’s The Terror Within. While the big-budget Steven Spielberg dinosaur drama Jurassic Park was still in production in 1993, we were already forging ahead with our own low-rent dinosaur epic, Carnosaur. Our true goal, of course, was to capitalize on the enthusiasm generated by the big-money films. But whatever our underlying aim, we were also capturing onscreen that era’s biggest fear: the threat of environmental disaster.

Right now, of course, we’re all thinking about an advancing global medical crisis. At a time when we fear for the future, some “epidemic” movies from the past are starting to seem all too real to be viewed as simple entertainment. In 1971, while still a graduate student, I saw a preview screening of a medical thriller called The Andromeda Strain. In that genuinely scary flick, the medical crisis is jumpstarted by alien organisms brought back from a space mission: a reminder in an era when the Apollo program was still new that outer space exploration could pose its own risks to those of us remaining on earth. I haven’t seen more recent movies in this genre, those with titles like Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011), but they too posit the threat of a pandemic that the world is not prepared to conquer.

Surely the Roger Corman movie with the longest shelf-life, 1960’s The Little Shop of Horrors, deserves a mention here. This darkly comic tale of Audrey the man-eating plant was something of an impromptu effort, created by Roger along with favorite collaborator Chuck Griffith when some sets from another production proved available for three whole days. Who knew back then that among the teenagers falling in love with this fast-and-cheap flick would be budding musical theatre guys Alan Menken and Howard Ashman? In 1982, they launched an Off-Off-Broadway musical version of Little Shop that became a surprise hit. (Roger’s original film was never copyrighted, and his belated attempts to wring money from this stage smash are laid bare in my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers). 

When the Little Shop musical became a major Technicolor film in 1986, the disturbing stage ending in which Audrey II takes over the world was replaced by a far more upbeat finale. It’s only recently that I discovered film director Frank Oz’s much scarier original cut, which features man-gobbling plants running rampant in New York City (and presumably the rest of the globe). It’s an ending (see below!) that seems right in keeping with our current pandemic fears.  Right now there’s a budding remake of this movie musical, with big names rumored for the major roles. I hope that by the time it blooms, this Corona outbreak will be a thing of the past. But we’ll probably have something else to worry about.

In case you’re curious about how the original Little Shop of Horrors was belatedly copyrighted, here’s a link to a 2013 Beverly in Movieland post that spotlights the heroics of  Corman editor Steve Barnett, to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude.

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