First feature: The Day Of The Triffids (1962)
Horror’s effectiveness often depends on its ability to find the hidden threat in everyday events, like a shower, or a trip to the beach. Killer plants, however, are a tough sell. Sure, plants are ubiquitous, but it’s a leap to imagine them doing any real harm. They just sit around sucking up carbon dioxide and waiting to get served up as food, or torn up into table decorations. The rare scary-seeming ones, which produce poison or eat passing flies, are outliers. There’s a reason films about killer snakes outnumber those about killer plants by a good margin. Try making an orchid scary. It isn’t easy.
But it’s been done, and done well. Adapted somewhat loosely from John Wyndham’s 1951 novel of the same name, The Day Of The Triffids imagines a world plunged into chaos overnight when a spectacular meteor shower blinds everyone who looks at it. That development coincides with the rapid growth of some previously harmless-seeming plants of alien origin, known as triffids, which begin traveling in packs and devouring those who cross their path. They find easy prey in a populace whose only warning sign is the unsettling slurping sounds the triffids make as they slink across the ground.
Between stints as a star of MGM musicals and a late-career turn on Dallas, American actor Howard Keel leads the film’s largely British cast. Keel plays Bill Masen, a sailor recuperating from eye surgery in a London hospital. He wakes to an abandoned facility and a world plunged into crisis. After rescuing a young, sighted girl named Susan (Janina Faye) when she disembarks from a train filled with blind passengers, Bill seeks refuge in France. There, he and Susan befriend Christine (Nicole Maurey), who’s also retained her sight, but remains committed to caring for a house filled with those less lucky than her.
Director Danny Boyle has acknowledged the influence Triffids had on his 28 Days Later, which also uses the device of a hospital-bound patient waking to a catastrophe-shaken world and a virtually abandoned London. But Triffids is really the secret source for all modern zombie movies from Night Of The Living Dead on, in which unthinking monsters pick at the seams that keep the world together. The triffids threaten humanity, but humanity also threatens to undo itself. One of the film’s scariest moments involves Susan being menaced not by plants, but by her desperate fellow passengers: Realizing they have access to someone who can see, they clutch at her greedily, and seem on the verge of tearing her apart before Bill comes to her rescue. Later, a group of escaped prisoners, looking to loot and plunder as the world falls apart, forces the characters to make a hard choice between helping others and surviving, an awful decision the film doesn’t understate.
The Day Of The Triffids’ killer plants never seem all that terrifying; they’re more creepy than scary. Despite a few unnerving images of killer stalks gathered en masse, waiting, the plants have the patched-together look and stiff movement of early Doctor Who villains. The real chills stem from how easily civilization breaks down, and how quickly so many abandon their civility. Director Steve Sekely shot it strikingly, too, with uncredited assistance from Freddie Francis, a filmmaker who spent his career alternating between serving as an A-list cinematographer to directors like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, and directing B-level horror films like Trog and Tales From The Crypt. (Unfortunately, Triffids’ forbidding Cinemascope images of misty countrysides and deserted city streets get a bit lost in some of the bad transfers floating around on DVD and streaming services.) Triffids falls apart a bit in an unsatisfying finale that spills into a tough-to-buy happy ending, but until then, it’s a distressingly believable depiction of how a world winds down, with killer plants merely serving as the catalyst.
Second feature: Little Shop Of Horrors (1986)
Where The Day Of The Triffids uses killer plants to explore the dark side of human nature on a global scale, Little Shop Of Horrors narrows the focus to a single person: Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), a put-upon plant enthusiast working in a Skid Row flower shop in the early 1960s. Living under the heel of a florist named Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia), who raised him but never treated him with much paternal affection, Seymour spends his days experimenting with new hybrids and pining for Audrey (Ellen Greene), a fellow Mushnik employee who’s dating an abusive dentist (Steve Martin). The relationship leaves her feeling as trapped as Seymour, but new possibilities start to open up when Seymour’s latest botanical innovation starts to develop its own will—and its own appetites.
Though the film is set in New York, its inspiration lies on the West Coast, in the Los Angeles’ Skid Row. That’s the setting of the original Little Shop Of Horrors, released in 1960 and famously directed by Roger Corman over the course of two days. Or so the legend goes. The original film looks cheap and rushed, but that ends up working in service of the material—and however long it took Corman to film it, it’s far from thoughtless. Jonathan Haze and Jackie Joseph make for funny leads as the original Seymour and Audrey, respectively, and Dick Miller’s turn as a gourmand with a taste for flowers is one of the most memorable of his long career. But Charles B. Griffith’s script is what makes the movie work. Rethinking the story of Faust, with a man-eating plant Seymour names “Audrey Jr.” subbing in for Mephistopheles, Griffith taps into a thick, dark vein of black comedy. The film gives a guy who has nothing a taste of having it all, but at a terrible cost: He has to keep Audrey Jr. on a steady diet of human flesh and blood.
Left to fall out of copyright, the original Little Shop Of Horrors became a television staple, picking up a cult following along the way. Its admirers included the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who turned it into a wildly successful Off-Broadway play that in turn served as the source of the 1986 adaptation directed by Frank Oz.
Pitting one against the other is a bit unfair. The original Little Shop Of Horrors is perfect in its own way, a grimy gem of a shoestring-budgeted comedy packed with double entendres, Jewish humor, and stomach-churning gags (including a hypochondriac mother incapable of cooking a meal without adding health-improving ingredients like Epsom salt). But with the film adaptations, Menken, Ashman, and Oz served as alchemists, making a transcendent, often moving musical that paid homage to classic Hollywood and early-’60s music without losing its source material’s mean streak.
A Greek chorus inspired by the setting’s classic girl groups—they’re named Chiffon, Ronette, and Crystal—comments on the action throughout, as Seymour wins fame, fortune, and Audrey’s heart with the help of Audrey II (brilliantly voiced with menacing charm by Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops). The film keeps the tone boisterous and bloody, playing like a musical Mad magazine parody of a vintage monster movie. But there’s an undercurrent of romance and yearning throughout, and one no-dry-eye-in-the-house musical number: “Somewhere That’s Green,” in which Audrey yearns for the perfect American life she knows only from television and magazines, instead of the grimy, violent existence she knows all too well.
Audrey II has considerably more personality than the triffids, but he (it?) is really just temptation personified. With every meal he feeds the plant, Seymour gives away a little more of himself. At first, this is loss is literal, as he sacrifices his own blood to keep the little sprout alive. It becomes metaphorical as he becomes increasingly active in procuring of meals from other sources, with each killing a little harder to justify than the last. But for all that, he remains likeable, a schnook who manages to hold onto his innate goodness despite his questionable actions.
That partly explains why test audiences balked at Oz’s first cut of the film, which offs Seymour and Audrey, then sends Audrey II and its offspring on an apocalyptic killing spree. That’s truer to the spirit of the play, but theater allows a little more distance than movies. When the two endings are viewed back to back, the compromised version plays better, though the original is more daring and visually impressive. Oz really has no one to blame but himself for the forced substitution: He’d made his characters, and their search for somewhere that’s green, too real. In the tug-of-war for Seymour’s soul that’s at the heart of the film, he made it impossible to root for the other side, no matter how strong the pull of its tentacle-like branches.
From dusk ’til dawn: Want to keep going? The original Little Shop Of Horrors is essential viewing as well, and will only take up 70 minutes. If the taste for blood mixed with chlorophyll doesn’t stop there, try The Ruins, a better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be 2008 adaptation of a Scott Smith novel, in which sentient vines menace some tourists visiting a Mayan pyramid. It’s ideal for bleary-eyed, middle-of-the-night viewing.
Best to avoid: Some movies are so bad they’re good. Others rub their self-conscious attempts to be so bad they’re good in viewers’ faces. Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes falls in the latter camp. Released in 1978, it established a pattern of arch-campiness, forced fun, and indifferent filmmaking that too many B-movies tried to emulate in the 1980s, particularly Troma productions like The Toxic Avenger and its ilk.