Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd is caught somewhere between a slaughterhouse and a Broadway musical. So it was perhaps inevitable that mainstream cinema audiences shied away from it when it was released last year.
The old story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street who butchers his clients and turns their remains into meat pies is hardly family-friendly material. The film's commercial prospects were further damaged by an adult-rated "R" certificate in the United States. Which is a shame, because the combination of the director Tim Burton and the actor Johnny Depp brings the blackest of black humour to a story that is otherwise coloured in shades of deep crimson.
This is the sixth time Burton and Depp have joined forces, and the tone of films like Edward Scissorhands, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the animated Corpse Bride made them a natural partnership for a film version of Stephen Sondheim's 1970s musical. In this adaptation of the tale, now released on DVD, Sweeney Todd is the name adopted by a demented barber called Benjamin Barker, who returns to London after serving 15 years in a penal colony for a crime he did not commit.
Bent on revenge, Todd is intent on hunting down the corrupt judge who arranged his transportation in order to seduce his young and beautiful wife. Returning to his old home, the barber discovers his shop has been taken over by a failing meat pie business run by the equally demented Mrs Lovett, played by Helena Bonham Carter (in real life, Burton's partner). Todd's clients are soon disappearing at an alarming rate, just as a new mystery meat ingredient makes Mrs Lovett's pies the hottest thing in town.
Burton has relocated Sweeney Todd, originally set in the 18th century, to somewhere in the middle of the Victorian age, with a backdrop of buildings and people so drained of colour by poverty and pollution that it makes the blood even more vivid when it begins to flow. And flow it does. Nothing is spared when Todd wields his cutthroat razor. Gore spurts and splatters in such quantities that everything and everyone is drenched by the final curtain. Burton's trick is to give it a theatrical excess that spares the audience the full horror of what they are seeing.
Depp and Bonham Carter play their parts as hollowed-eyed ghouls stripped of compassion for their fellow man by bitter circumstance. Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall embrace the villainous Judge Turpin and his assistant Beadle Bamford with customary relish (even if this does sometimes give the viewer the impression of watching the Hogwarts annual school play). Sondheim's score lacks the obvious show-stoppers of more successful film musicals like Chicago or, God help us, the forthcoming Mamma Mia!, which may be another reason why the film was more of a critical than a box office hit.
Victorian parents would scare naughty children into submission with the threat of Sweeney Todd. Burton, Depp and Bonham Carter give us the story for adults, as steeped in menace and melodrama as it is in blood and guts.