Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
A weathered vessel sails into 19th century London's bleak and dreary harbor carrying a hollow-eyed man. Fifteen years earlier, he was a successful barber named Benjamin Barker with a young family and a happy existence. But that was all stolen from him by the powerful Judge Turpin who coveted his beautiful wife and had him falsely sent to an Australian prison.
The man returning to London is no longer the naive Benjamin Barker. This man has been charred by the fires of hatred and now all but chokes on his lust for revenge. This man now calls himself ... Sweeney Todd.
Sweeney takes up residence in an apartment above the disgusting meat pie shop of his old landlord, Mrs. Lovett. The lonely baker woman long ago hid a secret love for the handsome barber. So she recognizes him beneath his gaunt visage and tells him of his wife Lucy's death by poison and his daughter Johanna's imprisonment under the lustful eye of the judge.
Sweeney burns afresh with rage and Mrs. Lovett promises to help him in his quest for vengeance. She returns his precious silver-handled razors that she has kept for him all these years. And together they spread news of a brilliant new barber on the streets of London, in hopes of luring the judge to Sweeney's chair.
But when plans go awry and Sweeney must give rival barber Signor Pirelli "the closest shave of his life," he and Mrs. Lovett realize that, until the judge shows up, human flesh could be the secret ingredient to improve her meat pie fortunes.
The story itself is very clearly a cautionary tale: One sinful choice can trigger an eventual avalanche of revenge and retribution that destroys everyone involved, even the innocent.
Mrs. Lovett takes in an abandoned boy named Toby and does so, initially, with a mother's instinct to protect him from harm. The movie shows (through flashback) that Benjamin Barker and his wife were a very happy couple and good parents before Judge Turpin's intervention. A young man named Anthony gives a beggar woman a coin. And when Anthony sees the beautiful Johanna sitting in front of her bedroom window, he immediately falls in love and vows to rescue her from the evil judge.
Several clergymen are seen outside the windows of Mrs. Lovett's pie shop. (One is welcoming parishioners into church.) Signor Pirelli sings of the barbering talent given to him by God. He later tells Sweeney, "May the good Lord smile on you."
Sweeney mistakenly believes (and sings) that obtaining his vengeance will be his "salvation." After Johanna tries to escape from the judge's "protection," he has her locked away in a mental institution and tells her, "Think on your sins." A crazed woman in the streets speaks of Mrs. Lovett being connected to hell.
Mrs. Lovett imagines marrying Sweeney in a sunlit church. Young Toby tells Mrs. Lovett that he believes "the good Lord sent you for me." He also sings of protecting her from charming "demons."
Period costumes reveal cleavage. Mrs. Lovett's dresses, in particular, display her spilling cleavage as she leans into the camera several times. Judge Turpin peeps in on Johanna in her bedroom through a hole in the wall. (She is always dressed when we see her.) Prostitutes linger in an alleyway.
Signor Pirelli wears overly tight trousers that accentuate his crotch (for obvious comic effect). The judge throws his cloak around a tipsy Lucy, giving the impression that he has sex with her in the midst of onlookers at his party. When the judge spots Anthony gazing up at Johanna's window, he invites him into his study and asks if he'd like to look at his collection of (implied sexual) drawings of women.
The famously dark director Tim Burton puts a special emphasis on the bloodiness of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. And in an Entertainment Weekly interview he spoke of the importance of highly stylized blood and gore effects. "Sweeney should be deliberately grotesque," he said. "A Mario Bava gorefest with ballads."
He took that attitude to such extremes that even studio executives reportedly became squeamish when they viewed grisly footage of prop blood splashing across the set when actor Johnny Depp slits the throats of his customers.
Baz Bamigboye, writing for The Mail on Sunday in the U.K., reported, "During filming at Pinewood studios, prosthetic lookalike limbs were used (obviously the real thing would have been taking realism too far!) and they were so gruesomely lifelike that some of the crew became nauseous and had to take fresh air breaks. ... Those on set were further spooked because there were piles and piles of sliced-up 'corpses,' plus several spare 'necks' in case Burton wanted to shoot several takes of the same throat-cutting scene."
Indeed, blood dribbles through the opening credits and then the gore faucet is steadily opened up from there. In one of the tamer moments, Anthony is thrown into an alleyway and beaten with a cane until his face is bloodied. But once Sweeney starts slicing throats with his razor-sharp shaving blades, we see a half-dozen or more men and one woman have their throats gouged, slit and/or slashed. Open gashes pump out spurts of gore with each heartbeat and in some cases the wounds spout all over Sweeney and the nearby walls and windows. (Think Kill Bill in a barber's chair.) One customer earns the barber's special attention as Sweeney drives his razor into the man's neck like a dagger.
A man kneels embracing a dead woman and has his throat slashed. His blood pours out and covers the woman's upturned face. Bodies drop from Sweeney's chair through a trapdoor to the building's basement, crunching down onto a paving stone floor to bone-snapping and skull-splitting-open-like a-watermelon effect.
We see customers enjoying meat pies that we're told contain the flesh of the barber's murdered patrons. (Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett sing a song about which passersby would taste best in her pies.) Toby bites into a pie and spits out a finger. It's then that he spots the bloody bones stripped bare of flesh that are stacked in the basement corner.
Crude or Profane Language
The s-word and "h---" are used a couple times each. The British "b-gger" makes one appearance. And Sweeney comments several times that Signor Pirelli's elixir smells like "p-ss" and ink.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mrs. Lovett gives Toby a glass of gin. We see him later passed out with the bottle in his hand. Sweeney drinks a glass of gin and a tankard of ale. A large group of customers drink ale while dinning on Mrs. Lovett's meat pies. Judge Turpin pours Anthony a glass of alcohol. We see a quick shot of men drinking in an alleyway. Partygoers drink glasses of wine. And Lucy becomes lightheaded after drinking wine.
The 1979 Broadway version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was one of composer Steven Sondheim's most beautiful and operatic scores, and debatably his most inventive stage production to date. He uses London's industrial revolution as the musical's coal dust-covered foundation. And through a fascinating narrative and scathing lyric, he shapes Sweeney's gruesome butchery and gangrenous vengeance into a metaphoric statement about the era's rampant corruption and greed. But even more powerfully, Sondheim uses Sweeney to make a tragic declaration that revenge is an evil that consumes and destroys everything it touches.
That powerful assertion continues to ring out in this film adaptation. Tim Burton paints the story with moody and claustrophobically dark visuals that all seem to fit. Even when the director makes up the cast with his signature Halloween-ish white pancake and hollowed-out eyes, it meshes perfectly with their vivid portrayals of characters who live with dark, hollowed-out souls.
In fact, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter play their roles, musically and dramatically, with a wonderful balance between theatrical exaggeration and ready-for-my-close-up intensity.
It's Burton's penchant to push the gruesome envelope, though, that shoves this Sweeney outside the realm of darkly comic stage show and into the domain of sanguinary horror-musical. He starts with drips and drops, then escalates the bloodletting until we see skulls breaking open on paving stones, piles of body parts stripped of their meat, and close-ups of arterial geysers that coat the camera lens and nearly every square inch of scenery.
But as stomach-churning as all this charnel gore is, Burton offers something that's even worse. He manages to give killing and death an appealing sheen. Depp's grimly handsome Sweeney, for instance, smolders with a singular and oddly magnetic passion. He may be a mass murderer, but he makes ripping out someone's throat look so intensely ... fulfilling.
And as we draw closer and closer to a devastating climax, Burton uses all his directorial skills, camera angles and dramatic lighting to turn rended throats and streaming wounds into fountains gushing rubies that spread out over the dirty paving stones, transforming ghastly death into a tableau of attainable beauty. With craft he fashions a gory creation that ultimately attracts instead of repels, subtly shaping a siren's song on the lips of the sickening Sweeney Todd, calling out for just one more kill.