Charles B. Griffith

Screenwriter of the cult classic 'The Little Shop of Horrors'

Charles B. Griffith, screenwriter, director and actor: born Chicago, Illinois 23 September 1930; married Marmory James (one daughter); died San Diego, California 28 September 2007.

Depending on who you believe, The Little Shop of Horrors, the black comedy about a man-eating, talking plant, directed by the exploitation master Roger Corman, was only made because Corman had access for a couple of days to some sets left standing on the Hollywood film lot where his production company, American International Pictures, was based. Some say its filming was rushed between Christmas and New Year's Eve 1959 because new Screen Actors' Guild rules were coming into effect which would push costs up from 1 January 1960. Whatever the truth, The Little Shop of Horrors became the fastest film ever shot.

It benefited from second unit scenes directed by Charles B. Griffith, who also wrote the movie's bizarre screenplay and provided the voice of Audrey junior – the plant-like carnivorous creature screaming "Feeeeeed Meee!" – as well as playing several minor parts himself. "I was the guy that ran out with his ear bleeding, I was a shadow on a wall with a sack in the alley and I was the gangster that stuck up the flower shop and then got eaten by the plant," Griffith recalled.

Made in black and white for $27,000, The Little Shop of Horrors originally played drive-ins and fleapits as a second feature but it quickly earned a cult following among exploitation connoisseurs. The composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman subsequently turned the film into a stage musical which triumphed in New York and London in the early Eighties. This in turn was the basis for a film remake directed by Frank Oz with a stellar cast including Rick Moranis, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, John Candy, Christopher Guest, and Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops as the voice of Audrey II.

Griffith had received $800 from Corman for the Little Shop of Horrors screenplay in 1960 and was originally left out of any subsequent rights agreement. He sued everyone involved. "It took forever, but the Warner Brothers remake was held up by the case so they settled," he said in 1999. "I get one-fourth of one per cent, and it has kept me going since 1983." That agreement only covered earnings from the stage musical, since Oz's film version has yet to recoup its costs, estimated at more than $30m. "The original broke even in the first hour of release," Griffith remarked.

Griffith and Corman had a rather fraught relationship but still managed to make over 25 films together between the late Fifties and the late Eighties. Griffith was only credited as director on five Corman productions, most notably Eat My Dust, the 1976 car-chase comedy starring Ron Howard, one of the many alumni of the Corman school of independent film-making, along with Francis Ford Coppola (who directed The Young Racers based on a Griffith script in 1963) and Jack Nicholson (who had a small but noticeable role as Wilbur Force, the masochistic dental patient, in the original Little Shop of Horrors). Still, Griffith's influence on subsequent generations of film-makers was undeniable. Indeed, Quentin Tarantino dedicated Death Proof, his recent exploitation homage, to Griffith.

Born in 1930, Griffith was the grandson of Myrtle Vail, a vaudeville performer who devised and starred in the soap opera Myrt and Marge on American radio with her only daughter Donna Damerel. After his mother died in childbirth in 1941, the young Charles spent the rest of his childhood in California with his grandmother. He developed a keen ear for fast-paced, witty dialogue and an ability to think up quirky situations while helping her write scripts for a projected TV version of the radio programme she had created.

In 1954, he was introduced to Corman by the actor Jonathan Haze, who would later play Seymour Krelboin, the hapless florist hero of The Little Shop of Horrors. Within a few months, Griffith was fixing the screenplay of It Conquered The World (1956) and writing schlock such as Gunslinger (also 1956), Naked Paradise, Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Undead and Teenage Doll (all 1957). All were directed by Corman, with occasional input from Griffith, who for instance shot the underwater sequences in Attack of the Crab Monsters.

While Corman made sure the films quickly went into profit, Griffith had his finger on the changing pulse of popular culture and wrote motorcycle gang pictures like The Wild Angels (1966) and Devil's Angels (1967). "I was lazy," he admitted. "Instead of trying to write an A-picture and sell it on the market, I'd just go back and get another assignment from Roger."

Griffith made his full directorial début with Forbidden Island, shot in Hawaii for Columbia Pictures in 1959, but worked with Corman again on Ski Troop Attack and A Bucket of Blood before coming up with the idea for The Little Shop of Horrors. "We went out on the town and started throwing ideas around," Griffith recalled.

Roger and I talked over a bunch of ideas, including gluttony. The hero would be a salad chef in a restaurant who would wind up cooking customers and stuff like that, you know? We couldn't do that though because of the code at the time. So I said: "How about a man-eating plant?" And Roger said: "Okay". By that time, we were both drunk.

Griffith spent some time in Europe and worked on the English-Italian horror The She-Beast, starring Barbara Steele, in 1966. He was also one of several uncredited contributors to Roger Vadim's Barbarella (1968), though the risqué lesbian scene involving Jane Fonda and Anita Pallenberg he suggested was edited down to a few shots.

In 1975, he wrote the screenplay for Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel and starring David Carradine and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. Griffith also directed the Jaws cash-in Up From the Depths (1979) and the horror comedy Dr Heckyl and Mr Hype (1980), with Oliver Reed in the dual title role, and jumped on the Smokey and the Bandit action comedy bandwagon with Smokey Bites the Dust (1981). He retired after making the fantasy adventure Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (1989).

Pierre Perrone

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