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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

It’s kind of weird when you think about it: Tim Burton is probably the most high profile director associated with the macabre, and yet only 3 of his films are rated R (and one of them is Ed Wood, which is only R for language). Sweeney Todd is the 3rd (after Wood and Sleepy Hollow), based on the musical that I never saw or probably ever will (sorry, Broadway, but lower your fucking prices! Or at least make the seats more comfortable).

As a film it certainly works better than other filmed versions of stage musicals (in particular Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera, a film without almost anything that even approaches quality entertainment). The cast, with one exception, feels right at home both in the acting and the singing (Alan Rickman in particular – I listened to the stage version of “Pretty Women” and found the film version to be far superior). Also, the film doesn’t seem to stop cold for a song, which is a problem that plagues other musicals. Not every song is here (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is one lamentable omission; at least, according to the people I have talked to who HAVE seen the musical. Maybe you should read their review instead of mine), and that’s a good thing: they seem like they are more focused on making a good film than making sure everything from the stage version is included.

The one cast member who seems a bit out of place is Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli. He’s not BAD, but his character is so cartoonish and loud that he sticks out like a sore thumb next to the rather dry and subdued black humor of the rest of the film. It doesn’t help that the audience I was with laughed every time he was in the shot, regardless of what he was doing. Granted, his presence cements the idea that the film isn’t supposed to be taken too seriously, but it still distracts. I’d rather they came up with a different way to get the purpose of his scenes across (Sweeney making his presence known on Fleet Street) that retained the tone of the rest of the film.

There’s also a very curious cameo by Anthony Stewart Head. Nothing I can find suggests he was ever in the stage version, and he’s not exactly the type of household name actor one would include for a cameo, so it’s very strange. He says one line and is never heard from again, nor is he credited. Whatever.

Like all musicals, some songs are better than others. “Pretty Women” was my favorite, though I also enjoyed “A Little Priest” and “Epiphany”. Surprisingly, Burton did not employ frequent collaborator Danny Elfman to conduct the score (in fact this is only the 2nd film of Burton’s in which Elfman did not contribute). Again, having not seen the stage version I don’t know if the instrumental portions are the same in the film or if they are new, but either way I enjoyed them.

Finally, I should note the gore. It’s insane! There’s almost a dozen quite bloody throat slashings in the film, with the red stuff spraying all over the walls, other characters, and camera lens. Of course, the hypocrisy on display is lamentable (why can Tim Burton get away with it in an R rated film but not Adam Green?), but what can you do? Needless to say, any fear I had that the film couldn’t be considered a horror movie were quickly erased.

While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s certainly a quality genre offering nonetheless, and much better than I expected. I can’t really see the “musical horror” genre taking off whether this does well or not, but I recommend you see it just in case.

Check out more of BC’s reviews at Horror Movie A Day!

Official Score