Fifteen years ago, a naive barber (Johnny Depp) was falsely imprisoned by a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) who lusted after his wife. Now, the newly christened Sweeney Todd is back, obsessed with revenge. Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the maker of the worst pies in London, teams up with Sweeney, who she always loved, with a simple plan for a successful small business: he kills people and she bakes them into pies. Sounds like it should have a happy ending, right?
Blood spraying as a crazed killer sings to his polished razors—not exactly Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. Ah, but it is so Tim Burton, the director with a macabre sense of humor and an eye for exquisite cinematography. Who else could take on Stephen Sondheim’s hit Broadway musical and bring it to the screen in all its throat slicing glory. Who else would get the joke? Well, a lot of studio accountants are hoping you will.
As should be clear from all my comments about slashing, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is not your average musical. Besides the joyfully morbid plot (if you have problems saying “joyful” and “morbid” in the same sentence, this is probably not the film for you), there is the music, which is thin; the melodies barely exist. That would be a problem if you were staging a Busby Berkeley spectacular, but here it’s part of the fun. This is really an operetta, where people sing when they would speak in a more mundane universe. Is that odd? Not in the de-saturated, twisted, theatrical world that Burton has created. Normal conversation just wouldn’t fit in.
Long time collaborator Johnny Depp, who has so often given Burton gentle souls to toss into the grinder, has found his dark side, channeling simultaneously Jack The Ripper and a vicious clown. He’s powerful, scary, and so very sad. I can’t conceive of an actor who could have done it besides Depp. Add another gloriously weird character to his resume. He’s in surprisingly good voice as well.
Helena Bonham Carter is a friendly Mrs. Lovett, easier to empathize with than Sweeney (if you empathize with the man with the straight razors, please seek psychological help immediately). She is perturbed upon seeing the first body, but when she learns that the victim was attempting blackmail, she smiles, knowing that it wasn’t an insane act, but a perfectly reasonable and practical homicide. Hey, sometimes you just have to kill people. Carter will never win awards for her singing, but in this talk-singy show, she’s charming.
Fans of serious horror should adjust their expectations. This is not The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, even if more blood flows here than there. It is a dark comedy, with emphasis on the “dark”. Still, there are remarkably emotional moments. That the film is at it’s most stirring during a poignant ballad of love and loss sung to a blade should give you an idea of what you are in for.
While sitting in the dark, hearing soft uneasy giggles and a few gasps from around me, I couldn’t help but label this a “cult film,” though that isn’t a pejorative phrase to me. If it doesn’t ring up big box office, it can play the midnight slot for the next twenty years where no one will tire of it. It is beautiful, but not for the flowers and smiley face crowd. If you like a little pain with your pleasure, a few tears with your laughter, an equal dose of hatred with your love, and lots and lots of blood, you won’t want to miss Sweeney Todd.
Tim Burton also directed the “genre” features Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), the tragic fairytale Edward Scissorhands (1990), Batman Returns (1992), the loving tribute to the often-titled “worst director of all time” Ed Wood (1994), Mars Attacks! (1996), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Planet of the Apes (2001), Big Fish (2003), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Corpse Bride (2005). He produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and James and the Giant Peach (1996).