Sunday, December 23, 2007

Reel To Reel: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

Music and lyrics that go for the throat.

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic Throat-Slashing And Bloody Violence, A Few Uses Of The "S" and "P" Words

Director Tim Burton has made film history: the first slasher musical. Actually Stehpen Sondheim created it, but not like this. The curtain went up on Sweeney Todd long before Phantom Of The Opera and no doubt influenced it by proving Gothic horror and haunting melodies could work together. Phantom plays up the romance while Sweeney piles up the bodies, accompanied by gleeful singing of revenge and opportunity.

As the title character, Depp embodies a loathing insanity, controlled and skillful yet mad as a hatter with a white slash through his dark hair. The first scenes show him returning to London after spending 15 years in Australia for a crime he didn't commit, framed by the corrupt and jealous Judge Turpin (Rickman, still in Servus Snape mode), who had designs on his beautiful wife. She is now dead, and their infant daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) is now a pretty young girl under Turpin's care. Todd returns to his former home -- where he lived as Benjamin Barker -- still occupied downstairs by struggling pie-maker Mrs. Lovett (Carter). She sings of her "worst pies in London" and high price of meat, which leaves us to imagine what's going under the crust.

Mrs. Lovett quickly reunites Todd with his old razor blades, the ones he will use to carry out his revenge and win back Johanna by luring Turpin in and cutting his throat. First he needs customers. He drums up business in a shaving showdown with the self-proclaimed "King Of Barbers", Signor Adolfo Pirelli, played by Sacha Baron Cohen as an Italian riff on his Borat character. When the stubbled masses start coming in, and as Todd grows madder, he hatches a scheme with Mrs. Lovett to revamp her business while carrying out his murderous impulses. Guess what's in the pies now?

Tim Burton spares us no gore. He does not camouflage the slashing with a polite cutaway or reverse angle. One sequence murders over and over again, with Todd dispatching his victims in merry melody as a duet with gargling blood. It's not pleasant to watch, and I can only see a man's throat cut so many times -- which isn't much at all. Better to just close my eyes and concentrate on Depp's capable singing, as is everybody else's. Wisener gets an extra tip of the hat for her angelic voice. It provides some lift from the horror alongside her romance with Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), the young man who has accompanied Todd back to London.

Otherwise, Sweeney Todd is constantly brooding, dark and impoverished. It's the Victorian London of Dickens, but Dickens at least had some optimism. Burton bathes us in the grit and filth of the lower classes with the corruption of the upper crust hanging over them. You don't have to suspend much disbelief to enjoy the movie, and that's saying a lot for how well this musical is staged. But it's still hard for me to watch horror films of any variety, and even though the Stephen Sondheim score makes it all go down easier, it's still a bleedin' mess.

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