Sunday, December 30, 2007

You'll Never Forget, but You Might Just Forgive..

As I have often established, I dislike horror intensely. What sets me off, triggers my PTSD and causes me to become very uncomfortable and angry...are two things about horror. First, the feeling that someone is truly enjoying causing pain and death. Second, that there is no justice, that God either condones this pain...or that God also enjoys it. And those are two aspects that have been the basis of nearly all horror movies made in the last several decades.

But I know the musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and it does not have either one. I've never seen it on stage, but I have seen the George Hearn/Angela Lansbury taped version of the original, expensive Broadway production. And in it, Sweeney is not so much enjoying the murders as just doing them, finding they do not salve his emotional pains. And the denouement makes it clear that whoever would choose to take vengeance had better dig two graves.

That's why I had no qualms about seeing what Tim Burton would do to this story. And amazingly, with the active participation of the composer Stephen Sondheim, he made a perfect film. It is a high point in Burton's career, and shows he has greater maturity and depth as a filmmaker than any of us would have guessed. I will attempt to explain what I saw, and hopefully won't repeat the other published reviews of the movie.

First, many of the songs were cut. "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is never sung in the movie, although it plays under the credits and many scenes in the film. There is no chorus to set the mood; Sondheim lets Burton do it, and he does it agonizingly well. Music needed for stagehands to change scenes isn't necessary in film, and leaving it in would slow the film down.

Second, Johnny Depp doesn't belt his songs the way a theatrical actor would need to do. He isn't playing to the back rows, he's playing to the camera inches away. His Sweeney is the most carefully controlled, quiet performance I think he's ever given. Even when he's dancing with Helen Bonham-Carter in "Try the Priest," the most exuberant song in the musical and the first-act closer, he doesn't need to bellow.

Third, as the photo above shows, most of the film is in Burton's signature blue/black shadings from Corpse Bride. It sometimes becomes yellow or red or other colors, but very much like duotone. When it breaks out into full color in some scenes, it's a shock. It suggests that CGI was used, not so much for spectacular effects, but to "paint" the appearance of the actor's faces in a way makeup and lighting couldn't do.

Fourth, I can only guess that Burton modeled Depp and Bonham-Carter's looks and mannerisms from the more dramatic goths. As Mrs. Lovett, Bonham-Carter exposes a lot of cleavage, but it's all dead, corpse-like flesh. Unlike most Mrs. Lovett portrayers I've seen, she behaves like an abused child waiting - or hoping - to have her father or boyfriend beat the crap out of her. That's an ugly thing to say, but it's the appearance many real goth girls take at conventions. The look will be popular at conventions for years, if the goths can afford the varieties of cloths and leathers it took to pull this off.

Fifth, the blood and grisliness - staples of horror movies - are mostly horrifying because the little orphan child Toby (Ed Sanders) is forced to encounter it. This, I daresay, is the real reason for the R rating. The child is younger than any other Toby I've seen; he is truly a child where most plays cast at least a teenager in the part.

It was an uncomfortable film to see, especially for me, but it was roundly satisfying. A lot of the people in the audience (in a 4 PM showing, a crowded theatre) had never experienced the play. They gasped and were spellbound. They were even surprised that they could laugh at times. But of course, as the second half of the film played out, the laughter stopped. Whatever the box office standings the film will gain, Sweeney Todd will become a classic. It has brought Burton back from his terrible Mars Attacks.