Worst pies in London, indeed.
Years ago, I began compiling (mostly in my mind) what I call the Hootie & the Blowfish File. I put into it any band, movie, book, etc. that either receives wild critical praise or brings in gross amounts of revenue, for reasons that completely escape me. Throughout the mid-90s I watched, dumbfounded, as the entire country gobbled up Hootie’s album, and radio tortured us with relentless airplay of a band that as far as I could tell, merited nothing more than a shrug.
Even when I don’t personally care for something, I can usually figure out what the appeal is for others. But occasionally something comes along and I just can’t for the life of me see what all the fuss is about.
I now add "Sweeney Todd" to my Hootie File.
This was a highly anticipated holiday film based on a musical with an impressive Broadway pedigree, directed by one of our most unique cinematic storytellers (Tim Burton), featuring an enormously talented cast. It has already won several major awards (including Golden Globes for Best Musical or Comedy and Best Actor for Johnny Depp).
Did I see the same film as everybody else?
Burton’s "Sweeney Todd" is a gruesome (to say the least) adaptation of an already morbid Stephen Sondheim musical (which was based on countless recountings of a real serial killer’s exploits) about a barber (Depp) who kills his customers while they sit defenseless in his chair. He and his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), then dispose of the bodies by baking their remains into the meat pies served at Lovett’s restaurant.
In this telling of the tale, Todd is motivated by a desire for vengeance against Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), the powerful and perverted man who stole his wife and daughter. I suppose it is possible to sympathize with Todd, but he has become an evil man by the time we meet him and no amount of rationalization can justify his indiscriminate bloodlust. Lovett, Turpin and Turpin’s henchman Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), meanwhile, are all simply evil by nature.
That leaves us with only minor characters to sympathize with, and they get very little screen time.
Instead, we are treated to a sickening barrage of innocent throats being slit, dead bodies crumpling into bloody piles beneath a trap door, and diners unwittingly eating human meat pies. And it’s all set to run-of-the-mill Broadway musical numbers whose only charm is the frequent use of profanity.
The idea of combining horror with music is, admittedly, interesting. But as a horror film it offers slashing without suspense or intrigue. As a musical it’s nothing you haven’t already heard. It’s "Cats" meets "Hostel."
The look of the film is pure Burton, a live action variation on "Nightmare Before Christmas" with splashes of "Edward Scissorhands," and the cast performs well enough.
Ultimately, though, this is an entire movie designed solely to make you squirm. Only rarely is it witty. Precious few of the songs are original, clever or memorable. I kept waiting for Burton’s trademark macabre sense of humor to arrive, but it never does. A campy take on this material would have been palatable, but this overbearingly dark meditation on blind vengeance that revels in every spewing artery was enough to make me want to wretch.
And the worst part is, I’m fairly certain that was the effect they were going for.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.