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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"There Will Be Blood"
4 stars

Before getting to the task at hand of reviewing Tim Burton’s long-awaited screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed 1979 musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” I must take a few moments to offer up a slightly embarrassing public admission on the basis that it ties in with my general reaction to the film as a whole. You see, each and every one of us has a couple of odd fears and phobias–the kind of thing that may strike others as strange even as they reduce you to a quivering wreck. In my case, most of them are ordinary enough by the standards of contemporary neuroses–I am revolted by the mere sight or smell of a banana (and no, it isn’t a Freudian thing), I get panic attacks if I set foot in a Crate & Barrel or Home Depot (the former because I am afraid that I will crush thousands of dollars worth of merchandise if I take one wrong step and the latter because I am convinced that those towering shelves are ready to give way at any moment and crush me in an avalanche of Stihl chainsaws) and I now apologize in advance to anyone unfortunate to be stuck sitting next to me on an airplane. However, the truly bizarre one–yes, even more bizarre than the banana thing (which I am telling you again is not a Freudian thing, dammit!)–is that I find it almost impossible to watch a scene in a movie that involves someone shaving without flinching violently. It makes no difference what the context is–even if it is the most innocuous and family friendly G-rated film imaginable, the sight of someone lathered up and scraping a piece of sharp metal across their face is enough to have me break out in a cold sweat while praying for the end of the scene. What is especially weird is that I have no problem with watching razor-related violence outside of a tonsorial context–the sight of Angie Dickinson being slashed in the elevator with a straight razor in “Dressed to Kill” doesn’t bother me a bit but the sight of Michael Caine in the same movie simply shaving with the same razor has me averting my eyes in revulsion every time.

Although I never saw “Sweeney Todd” on stage, I was obviously familiar with the particulars of the plot and yet it never dawned on me for a second that watching it might prove to be problem for my fragile psyche. It was only at the moment about 40 minutes in when the titular antihero (Johnny Depp) cracked out his prize razors and lathered someone up as part of a contest to see who can deliver the quickest, smoothest shave that it finally began to click that sitting through the rest of the film might prove to be somewhat of a problem. From that point on, the rest of the film became a sort of endurance test of one sequence after another of some unsuspecting dope getting lathered up while I was slumping to the floor in full George C. Scott-in-“Hardcore” mode (“Turn it off!”). In other words, “Sweeney Todd” quickly became the first musical that I can recall in which it was something other than the song-and-dance numbers that had me squirming in my seat. Therefore, I can report on the film and critique the moments that I didn’t panic through but I am warning you right now that the following review may not be as profound or analytical as usual for the simple reason that most of it was seen by peeking through the fingers that were more often than not clapped against my eyes.

Though the legend of Sweeney Todd has been recounted in one form or another for over 150 years (including a couple of silent film versions, a low-budget 1936 effort featuring British horror icon Tod Slaughter and several TV incarnations), it is Sondheim’s take on the material that is by far the most familiar. As the story opens, a strange, skunk-haired man (Depp) is returning to London after spending 15 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and as his ship heads to port, he regales Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), the young man who has been helping him, with his singular tale of woe. Years earlier, he was a happy and prosperous man by the name of Benjamin Barker and had everything in life that one could possibly ask for–a thriving barbershop concern, a loving wife in the form of the beautiful Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) and an adorable infant daughter, Johanna. Alas, all of that is taken away from him one day when the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) spies Lucy, falls in love with her himself and, with the aid of nasty henchman Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), contrives to have Benjamin arrested and sent away so that he can have Lucy for himself. Now known as Sweeney Todd, Barker has returned to finally achieve the goal that has kept him going for the past 15 years–to be reunited with his family.

Returning to the shabby Fleet Street neighborhood where he once plied his trade, Sweeney is taken in by Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the woman who runs the ghastly pie shop underneath his former barbershop and who has nursed both his razors and an enormous crush for all those years. Alas, she has terrible news for Sweeney–soon after he was arrested, Lucy poisoned herself and ever since, Johanna has been the ward and virtual prisoner of Turpin. Driven mad by rage and grief, Sweeney vows to kill Turpin himself and begins plotting to lure him into his barber’s chair for a quick shave and a quicker bleeding. To this end, he wins a shave-off against the fraudulent Italian barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) that makes him the talk of the town and brings Turpin in for the works. However, before Sweeney can do the deed, Anthony, who has already met and fallen madly in love with Johanna, bursts in and causes Turpin to leave in a huff, presumably never to return. In a rage, Sweeney vows that he will now not only kill Turpin, he will dispatch virtually anyone unwise enough to sit in his chair in great gouts of grue on the basis that “they all deserve to die.” As for the matter of disposing of the corpses, Mrs Lovett has an inspired solution and without giving the secret away, I will say that her new meat pies make her shop the toast of London.

Although one of the most inventive filmmakers around when working from original material (as he did in “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood” and the cruelly misunderstood “Mars Attacks”), Tim Burton has proven to be a little shakier when working from someone else’s material–for every triumph like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” or “Sleepy Hollow,” there have been wildly uneven works like “Batman” and “Planet of the Apes.” In the case of “Sweeney Todd,” however, I can’t think of a director working today who could have properly brought the show to the screen (although I must admit that I would have loved to have seen what Dario Argento might have made of it) the match-up between his directorial stance and Sondheim’s material (as refracted through John Logan’s screenplay) proves to be a fairly good one for the most part. One of the smartest things that he has done here has been to resist the urge to open the story up in the way that so many other theatrical properties have done on their way from the stage to the screen–instead of giving us lavish production numbers filled with bells and whistles, he stages most of the musical moments in an intimate way that properly underlines the outsider nature of the characters and their respective breaks from humanity as a whole. He also does a good job of creating an appropriately menacing atmosphere for the proceedings that suggests what the late Italian horror maestro Mario Bava might have achieved if he had somehow been given the job. (And while I am on the subject, I should probably point out that any worries that the grisliness of the material would be tempered in order to make it as an expensive screen musical, that is definitely not the case here–there are enough graphic throat slashings on display to put even the hardiest gorehounds off of their dinner for a night or two.) There are problems to be sure–the storyline gets a bit rushed towards the end (most likely the result of the telescoping required to tell a story that takes three hours to do on stage in only two on the screen) and the B story involving the two young lovers is never particularly interesting–but for the most part, Burton’s work here is fairly strong and self-assured and never lets the lavish production design to dominate the storytelling.

Since the day that it was announced that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter would be playing the roles of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, their casting has inspired concern among devotees of the show–neither one has had the kind of formal musical training that would seem to be a requirement to tackle what is generally regarded as one of Sondheim’s most fiendishly difficult scores and the eternally youthful Helena Bonham Carter would seem to be at least 20 years too young for her part (which was most famously inhabited on the stage by Angela Lansbury during its original Broadway run). In the case of Depp, his approach to the musical material is to essentially adopt the same half-talking/half-singing method utilized by Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady” so that his success in the role relies more on his acting skills (which are considerable) than his musical ones. This was a smart move on his part and while his performance may lack the kind of invention that he has brought to his other collaborations with Burton, he does tear into the material with the kind of homicidal zeal that never lets us forget that he is a psychopath and yet he still manages to create a certain sympathy for him as well. As for Bonham Carter, she has even less of a singing voice than Depp and that, combined with the aforementioned age discrepancy, is a problem early on but as the film progress, she quietly begins to grow in power and stature and at the story’s gory climax, she proves to be Depp’s equal in more ways than one. As the amazingly slimy Judge Turpin, Alan Rickman gives us yet another great bad guy performance to go along with the memorable curs that he evoked in “Die Hard,” “Robin Hood” and the “Harry Potter” films and Timothy Spall is equally loathsome as his brutal aide-de-camp. And in a brief supporting turn that consists of merely two scenes, Sacha Baron Cohen effectively steals the entire show with his hilarious turn as the sleazy Pirelli, a performance that shows that he is capable of doing more than just the “Borat” schtick.

Of all the recent screen versions of hit stage musicals, “Sweeney Todd” is far and away the best of the bunch–of course, that isn’t really saying much in comparison to such unwatchable duds as “Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent” (two films that might have been vastly improved if most of the cast had been messily dispatched with straight razors). Sondheim purists, who have never really been well-served by Hollywood (of the shows for which he provided both the music and lyrics, only “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum” (1966) and “A Little Night Music” (1978) have made it to the big screen and neither one was really worth the effort) will no doubt enjoy the film despite the occasional liberties taken with the material and those viewers who don’t particularly enjoy musicals are likely to find it so filled with visual spectacle, dark humor and grisly horror (and make no mistake about, this is a film that, thanks to its repeated views of throat wounds spouting geysers of blood, is as graphically gory as any mad slasher film that you could mention) that they may not even notice that virtually the entire story is told through song (a fact that is cleverly hidden in the somewhat misleading trailers). I enjoyed it myself for those latter reasons and because it once again confirms that the ongoing union of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp is perhaps the most artistically fruitful director-actor collaboration since the glory days of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Of course, thanks to all those shaving scenes, I’ll probably never watch it again in my lifetime but that shouldn’t stop you from checking it out.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15980&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/21/07 00:00:00
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User Comments

12/16/18 Ajpwales Boring. Over the top. Burton gets worse. 1 stars
2/13/17 Louise Enjoyable gothic horror piece - love the songs! 4 stars
3/28/16 Aj wales Bad movie dressed up. 2 stars
8/18/09 Jon B Definitely a masterpiece by Tim Burton. 5 stars
3/07/09 jcanthony A slasher film dressed up as an art film musical. The story has no value. 2 stars
2/17/09 Sally Sundeen I was disappointed by this one...but i still liked it. Love Johnny Depp! 3 stars
1/09/09 lima beautiful songs and great actors, especially depp and rickman 5 stars
11/11/08 Michael M Not a musical like it, but what detracted from it was the singing. Could have been better. 3 stars
7/03/08 mike very different. didn't like it at first but loved it in the end 5 stars
6/11/08 Jayson Could have been better. Depp was a hoot. 3 stars
6/08/08 AnnieG Everyone marked for death will die. Musical horror tragedy - what a concept! 4 stars
5/24/08 mark madsen Kinda back and forth on this one 3 stars
4/13/08 Colleen Cousineau If it wasn't a musical...............It might have been ok. 3 stars
4/05/08 smrtpants enough of depp with scissors already! 3 stars
4/03/08 bloody mustache Huzzah! Burten and Depp weave their magic yet again, another shave please? 4 stars
3/29/08 M IF they just didnt sing, Depp/Helena great! 3 stars
3/24/08 Noodle Truly amazing songs. Haunting and beautiful 5 stars
3/06/08 Millie Maelstrom Implausible and overrated, plus Helena Bonham Carter is an ugly witch. 2 stars
3/05/08 Louise A gothic blood-soaked masterpiece! No one makes films quite like Burton! 5 stars
2/17/08 SamanthaP I really liked it, the blood gushing was awesome, and Johnny was freaking hot! 5 stars
1/27/08 Mike Nearly unwatchable - only gets 2 stars for production value. Hard to follow, bland singing. 2 stars
1/25/08 proper amateur film critic a musical with performers who cant sing 2 stars
1/22/08 john 'Once' , 'Across the Universe' light years better..this was almost terrible.worst Depp ever 2 stars
1/15/08 Kishaun Completely boring, cliched, annoying and overrated movie. 1 stars
1/13/08 Sully Loved the flick, but I don't think I'll get a hair cut this week.... 5 stars
1/13/08 Luciie i LOVED it thanks :/ 5 stars
1/04/08 Kelisha Thanks for the props on Steve. He truly is God. 4 stars
1/03/08 Catt Burton and co. did an excellent job!! Loved this artistic movie! 5 stars
12/27/07 Quigley Excellent. Burton, Depp and Carter all do amazing work; great music. Not to be missed. 5 stars
12/26/07 BestPies Sondheim is God, Burton's respect for the music is wonderful. 5 stars
12/26/07 carlos G Mostly true to the theatre version, and even Sondheim gave it his blessing! 5 stars
12/25/07 PDJ Best Movie of 2007 5 stars
12/24/07 Cindy I loved everything about this movie. I plan to see it again. 5 stars
12/23/07 Missy H. Disturbing, diabolical, yet still delicious fun! I'll take seconds, please! 5 stars
12/22/07 Ole Man Bourbon Heh I was going to say the same thing: I really liked it, didn't love it. 4 stars
12/21/07 Keystra Williams I LIKED it, but I wanted to LOVE it. 4 stars
12/21/07 Bonny I don't think the gore & violence was off-putting. Loved the movie & music. 5 stars
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  21-Dec-2007 (R)
  DVD: 01-Apr-2008



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