April 13, 2010

The Killer Movie: Killer Hero


The most shivery pleasure of watching Tim Burton's ravishing screen treatment of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" is admiring how well Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter sing their roles of Fleet Street's demon barber and his murderous accomplice, Nellie Lovett. From its opening moments, Burton's mature, majestic filming rivals the original 1979 Broadway production, which boasted Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou, and the largest Industrial Age set ever to fill the giant Uris theater.


Nobody does twisted spectacle better than Tim Burton. With his wickedly inventive production designer Dante Ferretti, Burton gives us an entire London shrouded in polluting factories and grime. As Sweeney, Johnny Depp never talk/sings the role as famous non-singers like Rex Harrison and Richard Burton once did with "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot." Depp projects a subtle, crafty phrasing coupled with a rock singer's raw courage, into the intricate and operatic score, and that is more than enough--it is everything. Depp, no longer the affable pirate of the Caribbean, is transtormed by Burton into a Victorian glam killer for the 21st century. Girls, young ladies, women of all ages, beware--with his yet boyish face, his white widow's peak and a devil's leer, this is a Sweeney to die for.


Miss Carter, a formidable actress and Burton's longtime companion, is more of a helpful accomplice than Angela Lansbury's macabre chef who rolled and baked the victims' remains into mincemeat, but she more than holds her own as a singer in her duets with Depp. Alan Rickman, well remembered for his bad deeds in the Harry Potter films, sings and dies beautifully, as does (of all people) Sacha Baron Cohen as a competing barber.


Sweeney's serial killings were in all likelihood first inspired by an 1846 English pennydreadful newspaper serial, "The String of Pearls." . The following year this pennyblood serial became a play and the Britannia Theater's longest run. "Sweeney's" legendary history also includes a 14th century French ballad about a Parisian barber and a lethal pie merchant, a 17th century Scottish family of cannibals headed by one Sawney Beane, and an actual series of London murders in the 1780s that took place around a similar Fleet Street shop.


Up on the Broadway stage in 1979, Harold Prince's spirited cast always felt dwarfed and often lost amidst the multi-tiered and sprawling set that framed their mayhem. That problem goes away on the big screen, where you can stare up Depp's quivering nostrils and practically count the stubble hairs on Alan Rickman's chin before Sweeney's razor exacts its terrible revenge on Rickman's perverted judge. The camera can go in tight and hold on one twitching finger of another all-but-dead chap that's protruding from under the lid of a trunk. Film trumps theater. Tim Burton was surely the only budding filmmaker of his generation who attended the Broadway version half a dozen times almost three decades ago, plotting a screen translation.


In fact, you could say this is the movie that Tim Burton has been training up for a lifetime to make, because it's his closest in spirit and content to the Grand Guignol. The Guignol was a vest pocket theater off the Left Bank in Paris that presented 30-minute slice-and-dice horror dramas that pioneered the stage usage of prosthetics and torture devices. Throats were routinely slit and faces shoved onto burning hot stoves. (The Police Gazette, an exploitation tabloid of the first half of the 20th century, ran photo essays on the Guignol that I've never erased from my childhood.) The Guignol had the longest run--from the 1890s through the 1930s--of any theatrical company in European history, used scripts by name authors from Jack London to Guy Endore, and persuaded audience members who fainted after the onstage carnage to return after intermission and smelling salts for a 30-minute comedic farce by the same performers. More than anything else, it was this canny combination of a grossout followed by a kneeslapper that built the Guignol's worldwide popularity.


Most of the key American publishers of pulp magazines went to Paris to view the Guignol in the early 1930s and subsequently began genres of terror and horror pulps known as Weird Menace. These were the real American ancestors of Sweeney Todd, published by Standard and Popular, two of the major pulp houses in midtown. Many New Yorkers were offended by their visceral covers of men on torture racks and women being roasted on spits. Manhattan Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia pulled them from the city's newsstands in 1939, but they were studied by Hugh Wheeler, who was writing thriller suspense novels in the same era under the names Q. Patrick and P. Quentin, and who authored the book for the Broadway production of "Sweeney Todd."


And so when Mrs. Lovett stops baking roaches and bugs into her meat pies and starts turning out pies with thumbs and other body parts sticking out, we're trapped in Guignol. The torn throats spray torrents of red blood just like the 60s Japanese samurai films of Okamoto and Gosha once introduced, and the bodies drop through the seat of Sweeney's barber chair down a chute to the basement where they pile up like rag dolls waiting to be fed into the roaring furnace. This demon barber may be a victim of society and all that, and his character may well be rooted in the atmospheric worlds of Charles Dickens and William Hogarth. But at heart "Sweeney," like "Cape Fear," is a revenge tale, and when Marty Scorsese remade "Cape Fear" with DeNiro replacing Mitchum, he made it into a horror movie, even pulling an aged director/cameraman (Freddie Francis) out of retirement because he knew camera tricks only a horror director would think of. Tim Burton knows every trick in horror cinema, and has contributed some of his own. His "Sweeney Todd" is diabolical and gruesome, ever matching Johnny Depp's accelerating madness. It is not a film for faint hearts of any age.



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