By Matt Singer
[Photo: Johnny Depp in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Paramount Pictures, 2007]
Just in time for Christmas, director Tim Burton is painting theaters across the country red and green: red with gallons of movie blood, green with the faces of queasy moviegoers when they discover just what kind of gorefest they’ve wandered into. Burton’s turned Steven Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical “Sweeney Todd” into a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie for the Schubert Alley set. Squeamish theater fans take note: it’s “A Bucket of Blood and Barbasol.”
The story remains largely unchanged from the stage version, but the blood-and-guts factor has risen exponentially. Sweeney Todd is equally phlegmatic whether he’s giving someone a haircut, a shave or a straight razor to the jugular, and Burton’s camera records the action in much the same way. There are numerous instances where Burton could have cut away from the action to leave some of the carnage to the imagination. He never does. His technique is as coldly unwavering as Sweeney’s.
Once, Sweeney (Johnny Depp) lived a happy life as Benjamin Barker, a successful barber with a wife and child. Then a jealous judge named Turpin (Alan Rickman) wrongfully imprisoned him, stole his young daughter (whom he now intends to wed) and drove his wife to suicide. After a long exile, Barker returns with a different name and Susan Sontag hair, vowing revenge. “The years no doubt have changed me,” he sinisterly informs Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the crazy widow who runs the meat pie bakery below his shop. For a while Sweeney’s modus operandi is limited only to killing Turpin; at a certain point, madness and hatred expands his vision and he decrees that there will be blood for anyone dumb enough to pay him to lower their ears.
Thus, as the open credits suggest, blood and witty musical numbers pour down like rain. But even as the body count enters slasher film territory, Burton keeps the tone wickedly funny. If Sondheim and Wheeler’s original text was always smirky-creepy, Burton pushes the tone farther into the theater of the absurd. He turns Mrs. Lovett’s number about her hopes of a happy home life (“By the Sea”) into a candy-colored dream sequence with Sweeney, dressed in convict black and whites, desperately looking for an exit. He treats the romantic lead Anthony (a bug-eyed Jamie Campbell Bower) as a laughably desperate stalker (and doesn’t scrimp on Turpin’s pedophilic tendencies). He even cast Sacha Baron Cohen as an outlandish street performer (with an even more outlandish Italian accent) who becomes Sweeney’s first victim.
The staged “Sweeney Todd” was almost entirely sung, but even if Burton (with Sondheim’s blessing and assistance) cut several numbers entirely including the famous “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” opener and trimmed many others, the movie is still jammed with music from sprocket hole to sprocket hole. Though Depp has no formal musical training, he did spend many of his pre-acting days in various rock bands, and that influence comes through strongly in his vocal performance, which ranges from a David Bowie croon to a Billy Idol howl. Even if the songs have been performed by more talented singers in the past, there’s something seductive about Depp’s approach. Against any of the numerous theatrical renditions viewable on YouTube, the movie Sweeney holds his own. I’d take Depp and Rickman’s “Pretty Women,” for instance, over any of the half-dozen variations available online.
So musically it works, comedically it works, but man is this thing just soaked to the bone with blood. You can’t really argue that the thicker-than-waterworks ruin “Sweeney Todd”‘s message because they don’t. The orgy of Karo syrup (the only strong color presence onscreen in what is otherwise almost a black and white film) only enhances the story’s idea of revenge as a doomed, poisonous pursuit. Sweeney’s quest for vengeance touches, if not outright destroys, the lives of everyone around him even the innocent. His infective taint on his neighborhood is symbolized by the sooty smoke that pours out of his bakehouse chimney and clogs the air with an inescapable stench. However poetic the Judge’s ultimate fate may be, there’s no denying that Sweeney, not Turpin, has more blood on his hands both literally and figuratively.