1986: Little Shop of Horrors
Directed by Frank Oz
Written by Howard Ashman
We’ve seen some real cinematic wonders in the last ten years or so. We finally got big-screen versions of Spider-Man and The Lord of the Rings after years of thinking they would never come to pass. We’ve been treated to bigger and better screens showing us bigger and better 3D. We’ve had the way we watch movies change to the point where it’s as easy as pushing a few buttons from your couch. But for all the spectacle and technological advancement we’ve experienced, I still think my favorite time to be a movie-goer was the 1980s.
Like the music of that era, there was a sense of unbridled enthusiasm, a “What they hell, let’s try it” attitude that led to some truly memorable films, if not always for their reasons their creators intended. Movies felt more like events then, truly big deals, made more special by not being shown on seven screens forty times a day. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the experience of going to the movies. But something about how it felt back in my late teens carried a much more magical sensation. Theaters were more crowded, movies were more unspoiled, and maybe, just maybe, I was a little less jaded.
Little Shop of Horror makes this list less for its worth as a film — which it definitely possesses, and marks the moment when I first admitted to myself that it was okay to like musicals — and more for a particular experience it represents. I was home from college for Christmas. Granted, I wasn’t all that far away, but it was my first time back after moving out, and my first freshman semester had been somewhat tumultuous. So it was good to immerse myself in the old neighborhood, and the old connections. And somehow, a friend of mine and I, with no car at our disposal, decided to walk the four miles to the movie theater to see Little Shop of Horrors.
We loved it, Steve Martin and the remarkable Audrey II puppet in particular. But as we left the theater, we noticed a showing of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was starting soon. My friend hadn’t seen it. I wanted to see it again. And neither of us were ready for the four mile walk back home. So we went right back in and watched Kirk and Spock save a couple of whales without thinking twice about the looks we got from the theater staff as we stuck around for another two hours.
Earth saved yet again, we gathered ourselves for the homeward trek when we ran into a bunch of friends who were going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight, about an hour away. They implored us to join them, a decision made somewhat easier on my part by the massive crush I had on one of the girls in attendance. The idea of walking home at two in the morning paled in comparison to two hours in her company. So we went right back in and yelled at the screen and got doused with water and rice and toast. And no, nothing happened with the girl, but hey, they all can’t have happy endings.
And so, in the dead of night, after having spent some seven hours at this theater, we walked out for the last time. The air was as cool as a Florida winter could be, we were on a high from our cinematic orgy, and we suddenly realized we had absolutely no desire to walk four miles in the dark along a major highway. Sadly, this realization came after our friends had dispersed. That left the nuclear option: one of us calling our parents for a ride. I’m not sure how my friend ended up drawing the short straw on this one, or what rush of benevolence possessed his mother to come get us, but about half an hour later, there she was, bleary-eyed and annoyed, but possessing transportation. We made up some story about irresponsible friends who’d left us stranded, and that seemed to appease her, but I made sure to stay pretty quiet on the drive home.
Even with that awkward ending, it was still one rush of a day. It was the most immersed in the film-going experience I had ever been. In a lot of ways, it was an effort to cling to a carefree childhood that really should have ended one semester sooner, and an attempt to keep contact with a group of friends that were on the verge of going their own ways. I’ve done other movie marathons since then; in 2002, I splurged on Adaptation, About Schmidt, Chicago and Gangs of New York in one day, and even toyed with throwing in another viewing of The Two Towers for good measure. But they never held that same sense of youthful abandon as that one winter day in 1986.
Little Shop of Horrors became a symbol of that. It was a cult film that felt like it was speaking just to us, some piece of arcana we could use as a password into our inner circle. It was something we got that nobody else did. And it’s place as the overture to our long day of flickering images keeps it in my mind even nearly thirty years later. Maybe Franz Oz and company would prefer I remember their film more for its content than its context, but I think the memory I have of it is much more profound.