Let's say your favorite movie genres are comedy and romance. Well, you've got it made, now don't you? We get dozens of those every year. But what if your cinematic tastes lean more towards ... horror and musicals? Obviously there are tons of horror movies released every year, and the musical made its triumphant comeback not too long ago -- but if you're in the market for a "musical horror" film, well jeez. Rocky Horror Picture Show, obviously, and the still-awesome Little Shop of Horrors, of course. But beyond that I'm kind of left scratching my head, although I'm sure I'm forgetting a few good ones. (Feel free to remind me via email.) Plus neither of those movies are what you'd actually call "serious" films...
I introduce Tim Burton's adaptation of Sweeney Todd this way because, as I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the film, I was struck by how ... unique a production it actually is. Created for the stage by Steven Sondheim back in 1979 (although the story itself can be traced back to the 1840s), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is sort of like Les Miserables meets a '30s era slasher flick -- only they didn't really make slasher flicks in the 1930s, which is part of what makes this movie so damn cool.
Plot in a nutshell: Promising young barber Benjamin Barker has a lovely wife and a beautiful baby girl, but his entire life is snatched away by the cruel Judge Turpin, a sexual deviant who fancies Mrs. Barker in a rather unsavory way. With the help of a disgusting sidekick called Beadle Bamford, Turpin has Barker sent to jail, and literally STEALS his family. Flash forward to 15 years later. Barker returns to London, assumes a new name, rents a room above a seedy pie-maker's stand, and begins to plot his brutal revenge...
Tim Burton's most frequent (and, let's face it, most awesome) collaborator is Johnny Depp, and here the wonderfully unpredictable actor does the obvious (delivers a great performance) and the not-so-obvious (sings his heart out!) in equal measure. Depp's been delivering fantastic performances since long before he become everyone's favorite pirate, and his turn as Sweeney Todd ranks among his very best. Not just for the singing, mind you, but for the way in which he takes such a potentially hateful character and turns him into a villain we can actually love. Even better than Mr. Depp (yep, I said better) is Helena Bonham Carter as Todd's more-than-willing accomplice in crime, the darkly lovable Mrs. Lovett. (I'm not much of an Oscars lover, but man it'd be cool to see Ms. Carter earn a trophy for her work in this movie. She's long overdue, if you ask me.)
As the instantly hate-worthy Judge Turpin we have Alan Rickman, and I can already tell what you're thinking. Sure, Mr. Rickman has made a career out of playing "the baddie," but there's something pretty special about his work here. (It's right up there with Die Hard, really!) Plus there's some excellent (and very colorful) support from the likes of Timothy Spall (the nauseating Beadle), Sacha Baron Cohen (the cartoonish "master barber" Adolfo Pirelli), and a powerfully lovely newcomer named Jayne Wisener, who has the face of an angel and the voice of several.
For those (like me) who love picking through their dorky little cinematic checklist (set design, cinematography, choreography, screenwriting structure, and all that jazz), you'll find no shortage of things to enjoy in Sweeney Todd. I was particularly impressed by the ways in which John Logan's adaptation opts for song over dialog at every opportunity, although those who are unfamiliar with the 'classic' musical structure may disagree. (For example, my 18-year-old niece liked the film, but complained of "too many songs!") Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski might be looking at his very first Oscar nomination for his sterling work here (sure, much of the film was created in a computer, but damn if Sweeney Todd isn't a gorgeous movie to look at), and it's tough to be unimpressed by Dante Ferretti's production design and Colleen Atwood's costumes.
For all its surface beauty and pitch-perfect performances, Sweeney Todd is, at its core, a horror show. Yes, it's a musical and a tragedy and a metaphor for all sorts of obvious themes, but when you've got a story about a lunatic barber who slaughters a half-dozen people and has their corpses ground up into meat pies -- you're talking about a horror movie. And fans of the genre (yes, even those who usually "hate" musicals) will almost certainly have a grand ol' time with Burton's grand guignol presentation. In other words, you'll be witness to crimson arterial sprays unlike anything you've ever seen in a major studio production. To those of us familiar with the horror stuff, the gore in Sweeney Todd will be instantly recognizable as over-the-top theatrics ... but it's still a whole lot of fun to hear the "grown up" crowd moan and squeal once Burton's blood-geysers hit the screen.
Anyway, love it or hate it, Sweeney Todd is (at the very least) a pretty unique piece. Those who already adore the previous Burton/Depp collaborations will undoubtedly eat this one up and beg for more. Those who hold fond memories of the stage musical will probably be very pleased with the movie version, and the horror fans should be very pleased to see their beloved genre so well-represented on such a large scale. It's awash in gorgeous sights, mercilessly dark humor, oddly amusing tunes, and all sorts of strange goings-on. Nice to know that, even after all these years, Burton can still deliver something this strangely special.