It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Fears come back from the dead and walk in the day. Goths thrive at midnight showings of “Rocky Horror” and vandals throw eggs at houses. And the Film Beat? We’re popping popcorn and crawling under blankets to watch some of our favorite scary (or just vaguely spooky) films. ’Tis the season for tricks and treats — whether we’re jumping in our skins or howling at the moon. Join us as we walk through films that remind us of the dark night of Halloween.
It’s time to give Tim Burton’s adaptation of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” its long-overdue credit as a classic of the musical genre. Though well-received by critics and audiences at the time, the film hasn’t had the same staying power as other Burton classics like “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands.” This could be due to the latter half of his career leaving a lot to be desired, but this Halloween season might be the best time to revisit the film and realize it’s one of the director’s best.
Tim Burton seems to be the best filmmaker for audiences wanting Halloween films without the hardcore horror of slasher films or monster movies. His films are scary, but not too scary, and the best of his work blends tones of horror and comedy tremendously well. And while the horror in some of Burton’s work may be contained to a few moments (like in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”), this can make for a more pleasurable, fun, off-beat Halloween experience.
As someone whose typical Halloween film rotation includes the likes of Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein” and Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead,” Burton’s films provide a nice complement to these non-traditional Halloween classics. I love revisiting the horrifying performance of Danny DeVito (“Matilda”) as The Penguin in “Batman Returns.” “Beetlejuice” ranks up there with some of the best horror comedies of all time. Similarly, when I first saw “Sweeney Todd” my sophomore year of high school, it became an instant addition to my Halloween lineup.
“Sweeney Todd” is the perfect match of source material and filmmaker. The original Broadway show is dark and twisted, like much of Burton’s work, but it also similarly has a black comedic edge that adds some fun to the bleak material. I don’t want to talk about the stage show too much, given that I’ve never seen it, but it is still worth noting how perfect Burton is as a choice to bring the Stephen Sondheim musical to the screen.
The film works very well on a horror level, probably more so than the stage show, due to how gruesomely the violence is portrayed. Being a movie allows an intimacy that the theater can’t capture, which makes the over-the-top violence throughout feel more impactful. Burton goes all in, spewing blood and showing every throat getting slit on screen. Along with the piles of dead body parts shown throughout, it creates images of disgusting body horror that really make the skin crawl.
The performances also work very well, and they feel different enough from the original cast that they can be judged on their own merits. While the vocal performances may not be as strong as trained Broadway singers’, the cast’s screen acting skills more than make up for it. Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”) is stellar as Sweeney Todd, and his facial expressions combined with Burton’s intimate directing powerfully convey the emotions the character feels throughout his quest for revenge and his growing madness. Helena Bonham Carter (“The King’s Speech”) doesn’t quite convey the same gleeful craziness in her performance as her stage counterpart, but her more restrained take on the character of Mrs. Lovett creates a sense of fear of Sweeney Todd that pays off well toward the end of the film. Alan Rickman (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”) is also tremendous as the villain, Judge Turpin. His tone and posture create a menacing threat that feels both calculating and unpredictable. His performance provides a nice contrast to the more outlandish performance of Depp.
Burton’s directorial prowess is on full display in “Sweeney Todd.” The desaturated colors are a great choice that provides the film with a grimy, bleak look that matches both its Victorian London setting and the dark tone of the material. It also provides an excellent contrast to the bright red of the blood, which makes it really pop on screen and adds to the violence’s gruesome nature.
Despite taking place mainly in small rooms, the film does branch out some and show a bit of 19th-century London. This is a mixture of CGI and practical production design, both of which have aged remarkably well. The CGI could look a little bit better, but it is used sparingly (only for stylization, as in the fully animated opening credits sequence) and never clashes with the real people in any given scene like some CGI-heavy films of the time (see: “Star Wars” prequels).
Overall, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is one of Tim Burton’s best films and really deserves more credit than it gets these days. The music is phenomenal, obviously — it is Sondheim, after all. The performances all work well within the context of the adaptation but are also different enough that they don’t demand comparisons to their Broadway counterparts. Burton’s direction, and the fantastic production design, give the film a stylization that few films seem to have these days. However, it is the fantastic horror aspects that make it an excellent choice for a revisit this Halloween season.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.