Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Movies: I’ll polish him off.

Hello my lovely little Screamers and Screamettes. We’ve got something a little special for you today: a guest blogger! That’s right. Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was just so overwhelming that your humble horror host had to get himself a partner. So, playing Mrs. Lovett to my Sweeney is the lovely and talent Rachel, one bloggers behind the of the horror collective Top Horror Movies Club.

Here’s how we’re going to do. Rachel is going to review for you the Burton flick in all its lush, musical, gory glory. Then your humble horror host will ramble on a bit about the sources of Sweeney Todd’s story and we’ll discuss some of the differences between the various incarnations of Todd.

So, Screamers and Screamettes, tuck in your bibs, pick up your knife and fork, and get ready to dig in.

Never Forgive, Never Forget
By Rachel, Top Horror Movies Club, who is looking for other bloggers to join her. Swing by if you are interested.
Top Horror Movies Club

I'm not a musical fan.

I find them on the whole kind of boring and melodramatic.


My association of musicals would be The Sounds of Music, or Hair and although both of them deal with the hard and painful reality of war the presentation is clean and somewhat naive - (maybe because in real life soldiers don't march into a plane waiting to be taken probable death, singing...)

The combination of a musical, with the story of a maniac demon serial killer, throat slashing barber and a sweet if some what twisted human pie shop owner is to curious to pass by without at least stopping to wonder what on earth is in that movie.

Add Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to all that and you've got one of the most curious and original movies in the last decade. I am not the only one who thinks that - Sweeney Todd won 17 awards, among which were an Oscar and a Bafta and was nominated for 24 more.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler musical, telling the story of Benjamin Barker a.k.a Sweeney Todd, Who returns to London, after being sent away by Judge Turpin for crimes not committed (The Judge is sweet on his beautiful wife). On return after many years he looks for his wife and daughter, only to find that his wife is dead and his daughter the evil Judges ward.

Never forget Never forgive.

He opens a barber shop above the premises of Mrs Lovetts' (Played by Helena Bonham Carter) meat pie shop. A filthy establishment, over run with roaches, and known for having the worst pies in town.

The two become partners in crime - he slaying his victims on his rigged barber's chair, flipping the chair upside down and shooting them down into the basement through a trap door in his floor to fall on there heads and be grind and cooked in Mrs Lovetts meat pies, which the Londoners now come in droves to eat.

All of this demoniacal and wonderful horror happens to the sweet sounds of music and song (well not so sweet but you know what I mean), in Tim Burton's wonderfully excessive story telling style.

Never forget Never forgive is Sweeney Tod, Ex Benjamin Barkers motto. This is a story of a bloody revenge stopping at nothing and of great love. Amidst all the blood, (which is plentiful and spurting) it is a story of a man obsessed with revenging the death of his lovely wife, of a woman obsessed with this man and how obsession and revenge can twist ones mind.

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter where perfect for the parts they played.

In preparation for the roll Helena took both singing and baking classes and practiced them simultaneously, in order to prepare herself for the real thing. Johnny Depp on the other hand preferred to find his voice though the score without the help of a music coach. Both of there methods worked well. Singing baking and murdering at the same time is not an easy thing to accomplish and Helena Bonham Carter has it down to a tee.

Because of the weird combinations going on in this film, the results though very horrific leave you with a totaly different feeling than your regular horror movie does. You are not just scared or horrified or in suspense - You are all of the above, and also strangely elated and in love, like you are when you see a great piece of art, concert, play or movie. This elation is usually not one of the feelings I would tie in or associate with horror - and maybe this is the main point of difference between Sweeney Todd and your average horror flick. You could say that this is a horror movie with a twist...

In summation Go and rent the DVD - you won't regret it.

Here's the trailer.

And here's Capt. Jack Sparrow singing My Friends

The Sources of Sweeney
by CRwM

To accompany Rachel's excellent review of Burton's excellent Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I thought I'd discuss the some of the earlier versions of the Sweeney Todd tale and point out a few differences between them.

There's debate over whether or not there was a "real" Sweeney Todd. In the late 1700s, London newspapers did carry a story about a murderous barber operating out of the Hyde Park area, though the details of the crime are considerably more prosaic that the scheme Todd and Lovett concoct. Still, this gives us a killer barber operating in London in the same era in which Sweeney Todd is set. That's a tempting link, if a slim one.

Setting aside the question of historical precedent, looking for the fictional roots of Todd as a purely imaginary character yields much richer results. One of the earliest proto-Todds comes from an anonymously written 1824 story called The Tell-Tale. Set in Paris, this story features a French wig-maker who kills his clients with a razor before disposing of their bodies by handing them over to his partner, a meat pie baker. The Tell-Tale names neither the wig-maker nor the male baker. The story was republished in 1841, just five years prior to the first appearance of Sweeney Todd.

Another early hint of the Todd to come appears in Charles Dickens's 1844 Martin Chuzzlewits. In that novel, a character named Tom Pinch alludes to "preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis." Though this lacks the character of the demon barber, it hints at Lovett's pie shop, touches on the theme of urban alienation that would become a more important theme in later adaptations, and suggests that Todd-like urban myths may have been in wide circulation prior to Todd’s first real appearance on the scene.

Another interesting proto-Todd is found in the anonymously penned 1844 thriller Joddrel, the Barber, or, Mystery unravelled. Joddrel, the titular murderous barber, dispatches clients by putting a wooden stake through their head. This bizarre murder method may have been a nod to the then popular vampire craze kick-started by Varney the Vampire, published by the same publisher who published Joddrel.

After several near-Sweeney's, everybody's favorite murderous hairstylist appears proper in an anonymously written 1846 serial called The String of Pearls. Readers familiar only with the later adaptations will be surprised by the original story. Pearls is a traditional mystery tale. Johanna, originally the daughter of another Fleet Street merchant and not Todd, and her companion, one Colonel Jeffery, search for her missing lover, a returned sailor named Mark. Eventually the search leads them to the operation of Todd and Lovett. Mark, it turns out, is imprisoned under Lovett's shop, producing human-meat pies as slave labor. This is a radically simplified summary. One of the major differences between the original tale and its later incarnations is the number of subplots and the vast cast of characters that appear in the book. Todd and Lovett stock villains in an ensemble cast here, notable mainly for the almost out-of-place gruesomeness of their crime.

Todd's star potential was quickly recognized by the reading public. His catch phrase "I'll polish him off" caught on in the vernacular and the next edition of The String of Pearls came published with the subtitle "The Barber of Fleet Street." In 1852, an American author released an authorized (that is to say, plagiarized) version that dropped the original pearl reference altogether and came out under the more familiar title Sweeney Todd.

The first stage adaptation of Todd's story happened in 1865, but you'll forgive us if we jump straight to Sondheim's 1979 musical: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a Musical Thriller. This Tony-winning play debuted in New York and starred Angela Lansbury as Lovett. In keeping with the general trend of foregrounding the character of Todd, Sondheim not only simplified the overly fussy tangle of plots by running them all through a revenge plot centered around Sweeney, he also tried to suggest that Sweeney – despite his freakish psychology and bloodthirsty murderousness – is some sort of everyman character. In "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," a musical number cut from the Burton adaptation, a Greek chorus of urban types claims that Todd's rage stems from his inability to let the past go. He kills the present because it isn't the idealized past. (This explains, I think better than the film does, why Todd seems so uninterested in his family now – he only cares for his memories of them.) Giving Todd these motivations is a radical revision of the original, where Todd is little more than a particularly grisly thief.

Here's a YouTube clip of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" as performed by school students – because it is awesome that school students would be allowed to put this play on:

Tim Burton's film is a close adaptation of the Sondheim musical, but the differences are telling. Burton's Todd has the revenge motive of Sondheim's, but Burton cuts the Greek chorus from the film and, by extension, cuts the overt efforts to suggest that Todd's problem (and the audience's too, if the chorus is to be believed) is that he cannot suffer the present because he's in the grips of an idealized past. In fact, Burton seems almost complicit in Todd's fantasy of the past. In the original musical there are hints that Todd's wife might not have been quite as pure as Todd likes to think. When Todd returns to London, she hasn't just gone crazy, she's become a whore. The first line she delivers to Todd is an offer of sex. He, trapped in his own mind, doesn't recognize his own wife. By contrast, Burton's take on Todd's past is without shading. His Todd had a perfect life and lost it. By making him a profoundly wronged man, he makes him something like an unhinged dark avenger. Burton somewhat justifies Todd’s grandieous nihilism.

As an aside, the book is explicit that the chair in Todd's barbershop drops backwards. In the original, it is the fall on the head, and not a sliced throat, that kills Todd's victims. Every stage version has gone with a chair that shoots people feet-first into their meat pie future. It is a nice nod to the original that Burton's chair drops folks head-first to their doom.

For readers interested in hunting down previous versions of the Todd story, I recommend you start with Sondheim's musical. While Burton's stunning visuals are impossible to produce on stage, Sondheim's original has nuanced levels of meaning that Burton skipped over. Sondheim's work should appeal strongly to anybody who enjoyed the film. The original serial is currently available from Oxford Press under the title Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It's got Johnny Depp on the cover. Honestly, I find the original a bit dry. The scenes involving the central mystery of Mark's disappearance move quickly and hold attention, but the book frequently chases some other plot down the rabbit hole (as in the entire chapter detailing the domestic squabbling of Johanna's parents) and drags. Fans of Victorian lit, historical mysteries, and Todd complete-ists won't be disappointed.

Famed novelist and comic book writer Neil Gaiman and artist Michael Zulli produced a small pamphlet called The Sweeney Todd Penny Dreadful. This pastiche included original art, excerpts from previous versions, reproduced period art, and commentary on the evolution of the Todd story from Gaiman. The work appeared in the sixth issue of the horror comic anthology Taboo. It was meant as a preview for a Sweeney Todd mini-series. Unfortunately, the series never materialized. Fans of Gaiman's work will just have to imagine what he would have done with the tale.


Anonymous said...

Sweet old Angela Lansbury in such a gristly tale ? She really moved up to "Murder, She Wrote".

Maybe a cameo on the next Saw installment would be good for her.

CRwM said...

Screaming Sassy,

Angela used to tackle some pretty creepy roles. Check her out as the evil mother in the original The Manchurian Candidate. She's something out of the histories of ancient Rome dropped into the middle of a Red Scare Era thriller. She's pretty amazing.