On the twenty-first day of Halloween, some gnarled trees gave to me: Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton, 2007)
Since I’m a weenie and had to take a break from watching ghost movies, I present to you what I’d like to coin a “living” ghost story: the tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s not necessarily a horror movie per say, but it’s got gore and guts aplenty.
but the work waits!
I’m always a hoe for musicals. Once upon a time, I was a Theatre Kid ©, on top of being a Film Asshole ©. To make it even worse, I was a Musical Theatre Kid ©, which meant my awkwardness usually was set to a tune. It wasn’t pretty, but I’d like to think I carried myself with some modicum of grace. I never got deep into the obscure theatre shit- I stuck mostly to popular stuff. Chicago, Wicked, Into the Woods, Hamilton. You know, pretty basic stuff. Good stuff, but standard stuff.
Now generally speaking, “musical theatre” and “spooky” don’t necessarily go in the same sentence, unless “ is not” is wedged between them. Of course, Sweeney Todd is the rare exception. So while this musical might seem like a bit of an odd addition to this series, I think Burton’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd is a beautifully pulpy rendition of a classic musical, and oozes with atmosphere. It’s melodramatic to the max with a dark sense of humor: if you like your revenge story with a side of cannibalism with great double entendres sprinkled on top, then read on.
Here’s the story for those who are unfamiliar:
Former barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London after escaping an injust imprisonment abroad, intending to find his family and exact his revenge. Returning to his old shop on Fleet Street, he meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who owns the pie shop below his room. Lovett tells Barker that a young barber and his wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) lived there, but that the local Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) had become obsessed with Lucy, and after sending away her husband on phony charges, seduced her. Lucy, reeling from her assault, committed suicide. Determined to get what he wanted, Turpin then took custody of Lucy and Benjamin’s only daughter, the beautiful Joanna (Jayne Wisener). Barker is unable to maintain his composure upon hearing what happened to his family, and Lovett realizes that he is Barker himself. Barker, determined to exact his revenge, adopts the name Sweeney Todd, and sets up shop again.
After killing a competing barber who threatened to expose him in a fit of rage, Todd and Lovett decide to use the situation to their advantage. Dismembering the body of the barber, they it for meat for Mrs. Lovett’s shop. This practice continues on and on to great success, all as Todd makes his way closer to Judge Turpin. But revenge is never as simple as it seems, and Todd’s world quickly comes crashing down.
A little Priest background
Sweeney Todd is originally a story from a penny dreadful (a pulpy, cheap story that often featured gore or the macabre) that has stuck around to present. While some have claimed that the Demon Barber of Fleet Street has some historical basis, it’s generally considered to be a fictional story. The tale of Sweeney Todd has been adapted into all sorts of art, and Todd himself is a pretty iconic character. Of course, his most popular portrayal is the famous Broadway musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This Tony-winning musical, penned by Sondheim, originally starred Len Cariou as Todd, and the brilliant Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett.
Burton adapted the stage musical into his 2007 film, and pretty faithfully too. In a surprising and totally unpredictable move, Burton cast Johnny Depp as Todd and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. Shocker, I know. While Burton’s style and choice of talent has become almost cut-and-paste, I think dismissing his approach here would be a bad move. While his whole schtick is definitely stale in some cases, I really think Sweeney Todd was a perfect setup for his vision.
They all deserve to die!
While not totally a “horror movie,” I think Sweeney Todd is thematically dark enough and replete with sufficient gore to toe the line. I mean, there’s a song devoted to what different types of people would taste like. That’s pretty brutal for any movie, period.
Sweeney Todd has a body count that would rival most modern horror movies, and throats are slit in glorious close-ups throughout the entire film. While the violence is thoroughly supported by a backbone of pure melodrama, it’s pretty significant nonetheless.
It’s also just a very thematically dark story: Sweeney has lost everything, and is so hell-bent on revenge that it consumes him. He’s chasing ghosts, some who are alive, and others long dead. Todd becomes twisted with rage and bitterness, and it leaves him numb to the world around him. If nothing else, Sweeney Todd is a great example as to why revenge is never a good idea.
Of course, the ultimate kicker in Sweeney is that Todd inadvertently kills his own wife, who survived her suicide attempt, but subsequently delved into a state of deep mental distress. She is forced to live on the street and becomes the beggar woman, unrecognizable to Todd. It’s only when he is cradling her body in his arms that he realizes that she is Lucy, his beloved wife.His desire for revenge blinded him, and now he has truly lost everything and everyone he ever loved.
he served a dark and vengeful god
Burton’s vision was perfect for Sweeney: the grimy, grey streets of 19th century London serve as a perfect canvas for his aesthetic. Depp and Carter, while not musical virtuoso, carry the characters well enough.
I also think Burton made a smart decision by not going re-write heavy on Sweeney Todd. He kept it almost completely faithful to the original musical, save a few tweaks here and there. The biggest difference that I personally noticed was the elimination of the townspeople/chorus.
In the stage musical, the townspeople act as a Greek chorus, narrating and ushering on the action. They have some of the best music in the whole show, so I was a little disappointed when they didn’t make an appearance. That said, from a filmmakers perspective, a narrative chorus doesn’t necessarily read well on film, and can be percieved to interrupt the flow of the action.
But still, listen to the opening number of the stage musical. Be aware, there is a PIERCING whistle about 33 seconds in:
That is some Spooky Shit © right there, folks. The film’s overture is almost the exact same music (mostly) just with no lyrics.
This is a kind of heavy film, so be aware that besides a lot of death and cannibalism, there are mentions of suicide, sexual assault, and Judge Turpin is a manipulative rapist who targets a barely-legal woman.
Sweeney heard music that nobody heard
I’m not saying it’s a horror movie, but I am saying that Sweeney Todd has got a lot going for it. There’s cannibalism, straight razors, and metric fuckton of brooding and angst. I really think Burton did a smashing job with Sweeney, and kept the spirit of the play (along with the music) very much intact. It’s good, dark fare, and is perfect for a stormy evening in.
I’d just like, avoid sketchy meat for a bit.
Featured image source: http://www.impawards.com/2007/sweeney_todd.html