I did some reading up on it, and as it turned out, the Faustian subtext went completely over my head.
What I originally interpreted the movie as was a story of two meek, abused people thoroughly disadvantaged by the society they lived in, one that would constantly step on them when they weren’t being pushed around by it. The plant was a physical manifestation of said society that gobbles people up, only this time one of the disadvantaged had the choice of continuing to feed it, or stand up and fight against it—eventually culminating in a climax where, after being pushed around and used by it for so long, he finally does and emerges triumphant.
What the story was really about, however, was a tragic tale of temptation and corruption induced by a deal with the Devil, all wrapped up in a B-movie package with a side order of criticism of consumerism (and awesome puppetry). And that just never got across to me in the theatrical cut.
Eventually, I saw the movie again with its original ending, now fully restored and in color. And I enjoyed it as much as I did the theatrical cut. Somehow, it didn’t feel out of place or jarring this time around. My criticism of the film not conveying Seymour’s temptation clearly remained, and the shortening of “The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth” was certainly a result of that (in the full version, Seymour explicitly voices his see-sawing feelings of temptation, eventually consenting to The Deal without reluctance), but it still flowed seamlessly, was amazing to look at, and had some darkly powerful callbacks.
So, in the end, I reached two conclusions:
1. The endings can’t be enjoyed as separate pieces; they need to be seen as part of the film and not as after-viewing specials.
2. The endings, in my eyes, tell two different stories—the one I described further up as my own interpretation when I saw the theatrical cut’s ending, and the original intent that comes with the intended ending. I’m honestly glad these two endings exist for that reason; it’s really rare that such endings can change what story it’s trying to tell almost entirely, and that’s fascinating and commendable, even if it wasn’t the filmmakers’ intent.
And I’m glad the focus group ending exists because dammit, Audrey needs a break.