Tim Burton’s film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s at once everything a Tim Burton picture should be, everything a musical should be, everything the play should be and everything the venerable horror story of good old Sweeney should be. It may also be Burton’s most accomplished film. Certainly it’s as good as anything he’s ever done, and that’s saying a great deal right there.
A lot of people seem to be surprised that Burton could pull off a musical—an idea that baffles me, since his operatic style has suggested he could all along. The “Ice Dance” and the final scene in Edward Scissorhands (1990) are almost musical numbers in themselves. The animated films Tim Burton’s the Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005) are in fact musicals, and there are musical numbers in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). So where’s the big shock? At that, Burton’s never done a musical quite like this, but perhaps no one has if it comes to that. Oh, yes, Sondheim’s play has been around since 1979, and yes, it’s very aptly called a “horror musical,” but there’s a significant difference between the highly stylized stage presentation and the comparatively realistic splattery horrors of Burton’s film.
Make no mistake, this is every inch a horror film—hands down the best one of the year—and a pretty darn gruesome one. The blood flows freely and the throat slittings are every bit as graphic (if more cheerfully so) as the ones in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. Sweeney Todd is awash in blood and gore, but this after all is the story of a serial killer barber who “polishes off” his victims with a razor and then delivers them to his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, who bakes them into meat pies. It’s been an extremely gruesome tale ever since it first appeared in Thomas Priest’s story “The String of Pearls: A Romance” in 1846, and subsequent versions have only upped the horrors.
Brit horror star Tod Slaughter played Sweeney for years on the stage—and once in a film back in 1936—but his was the traditional Sweeney Todd, the mad barber out to rob returning travelers when they docked in London. It wasn’t until 1973 when Christopher Bond took George Didbin Pitt’s 1847 stage version and reworked it as a revenge story, coming up with Sweeney as the alias for the wrongfully imprisoned Benjamin Barker, who returns to England from Australia to exact vengeance on the judge who sentenced him. It is this version that formed the basis for the musical. The changes make for a Sweeney Todd who is undeniably more sympathetic, but they do nothing to make him any less homicidal or bloody.
Burton’s film offers probably the bloodiest version to date, as well as the most artistically accomplished. It’s also a surprisingly dark and cynical film. While Burton is no stranger to dark material, there’s always been a certain quirky charm and sweetness of tone to undercut the grimness. That’s not really the case here. As portrayed by Johnny Depp, Sweeney is never less than horrifically mad. There are a few glimmerings of the usual Depp-Burton character in the scene where Sweeney meets Mrs. Lovett (notably in his attempts to get a word in while she fawns over him as a potential customer in her roach-infested bake shop), but that’s all.
The closest the film ever comes to sweetness lies in Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett, who is hopelessly in love with this throat-slitting lunatic—and even fantasizes about the hopeless prospect of a happy future for the two of them and their “adopted” workhouse charge, Toby (newcomer Ed Sanders). It’s a singularly twisted fantasy—her vision has the three of them in an idyllic seaside setting, but they all have a horror-film pallor and dark eye makeup, and Sweeney is as remote as ever—but it’s the single bit of warmth in the film, apart from the subplot involving Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna (newcomer Jayne Wisener), and his former traveling companion, Anthony Hope (newcomer Jamie Campbell Bower). Bonham Carter also has the film’s most heartbreakingly human moment—when she realizes that it will be necessary to add Toby to the long list of victims if she and Sweeney are to be safe.
An air of doom hangs over the entire film, but it’s never an unpleasant experience—unless, of course, you just don’t like flat-out horror—because it’s done with such style and cheeky assurance. It’s never less than dark, bloody fun, but it is most definitely dark. Simply put, it’s the best horror film in ages and one of the best films of the year. It’s brilliant and bloody—and bloody brilliant. Rated R for graphic bloody violence.