Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Special Edition (US - BD)
Gabe is drenched in 1080 progressive lines of bright red jugular claret...
After years spent in prison for crimes he did not commit, Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London under the alias of Sweeney Todd. Todd arrives to find his wife dead and daughter held captive by the evil judge (Alan Rickman) that sent him up the river in the first place. Todd opens a barbershop above Mrs. Lovett's (Helena Bonham Carter) Meat Pie Shop, and begins to plot his murderous revenge. With the help of Mrs. Lovett, who uses the bodies of newly slashed victims in her vile pies, Todd takes aim at the Judge, who means to marry his adopted daughter.
Tim Burton has spent the last decade plus churning out entertaining, but ultimately shallow and disappointing features. Following the success his two Batman films major studios got the silly idea in their heads that Burton was some kind of action director, and after the implosion of his epic Superman project Mr. Pale Face was given the reigns to a misbegotten Planet of the Apes remake. Though the film wasn’t quite as bad as some would have you believe (it did look pretty sharp), its negative reception appeared to some as a sizable final nail in the director’s tomb. Big Fish represented a different direction for the impossibly gothic director, but the film lacks emotional weight, and depends too fiercely on a typically warm performance from actor Ewan McGregor. Burton’s 2005 follow-up double shot, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Corpse Bride, were massive disappointments. Both films were surprisingly obnoxious, and ran on bland mimicry of the director’s better achievements.
I have a large measure of affection for the Hammer House of Horror take on the Sleepy Hollow legend that Burton tackled in 1999, even though I readily recognize that the film doesn’t hold the skewed emotional resonance of Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, nor the original visual impact of Beetlejuice. Burton’s return to quirky-Goth and musicals with Sweeny Todd wasn’t something that sounded particularly challenging for the director, especially considering it would be an adaptation of an already successful stage play (not to mention the fact that the film only came together after another Burton production fell apart).
What Burton achieves with Sweeney Todd is very similar to what he achieved with Sleepy Hollow—an energetic homage to Hammer Horror, Mario Bava, and Roger Corman, filmed with few tones beyond black, white and red. Burton doesn’t take the effect to the extremes he did on Sleepy Hollow, and allows himself to take on more modern film effects, but he maintains the staged feel. Burton also visually quotes himself throughout the movie, from the attic and basement sets of Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow, to the costumes and hairstyles of Batman Returns, and touches of Beetlejuice-ian mirth. Critically this type of super-narcissistic behaviour is often suspect, and unintentionally funny (see: Brian DePalma and Dario Argento), but the fact that the material is almost jokingly pre-made for Burton’s sensibilities creates a shaky balance. Sweeney Todd succeeds on more on an emotional level then any Tim Burton film since Ed Wood (folks often forget Martin Landau won a richly deserved Oscar for his work as an aging Bela Lugosi), without sacrificing too much of the dark humour that makes the director’s best films so memorable. The mix of humour, horror and melodrama is a hard sell, and until I saw the movie I really wasn’t sure that Burton was the man for this job.
Despite his reputation for dark and moody pictures Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow are Buton’s only particularly bloody films. The violence here is somewhat cartoony in the way Hollow’s was, and the blood itself is too bright to be taken too seriously, but the fetishistic way in which Depp welds his knives and the sentiment behind the violence makes Sweeny Todd the darkest film in Burton’s career. The various unsubtle jabs at political subtext (eat the rich) were part of the original myth, but any political subtext in a Tim Burton film (beyond the dumpy heavy handedness of Planet of the Apes) is a cause for minor celebration.
It’s just about impossible act subtly while singing, but this highly adept cast manages several moments of genuine drama amongst the booming harmonics and histrionics. The weak link is Jamie Campbell Bower, though I blame the character’s flatness more on the writing then on Bower’s pretty-face portrayal. Calling the film a ‘musical’ is almost a misnomer—its’ practically a full-on opera, meaning that folks unhappy with the idea of watching a singing murderer will probably remain unhappy throughout the entire runtime. There are very few plot points or character emotions expressed without song, and the few that aren’t are sort of jarring.
It took a few months, but we finally have Sweeney Todd in high definition. A back to back comparison isn’t actually as day and night as I’d assumed when I wrote my DVD review, but overall the improvement is undeniable. Burton’s early choices are so dark that even with the extra pixels the image is a little hard to discern. From this standpoint I’m a little disappointed, but I didn’t see the film in theatres, so I can’t speak for the scenes’ intended look.
As the film progresses it lightens up a bit, and hints of gold infiltrate the stony pallet. The DVD release didn’t demonstrate this change up as obviously, though the clean quality of these soft auburn hues is still even and subtle. The film’s more colourful scenes (mostly flashbacks and dream sequences) look much cleaner than the standard definition release and those wonderfully cheesy blood reds are crisp as apples, but the big difference comes during the film’s ultra dark finale. Unlike the early dark scenes, which are nearly black and white with only a kiss of blue, the final scenes are licked with flames, and more blood than the rest of the film combined. The compression noise and loss of detail that plagued the DVD release isn’t entirely gone, but it’s been greatly improved.
The new Dolby TrueHD track isn’t very different from the old Dolby Digital track, but the lack of compression is noticeable in the LFE channel and in general volume. Otherwise, everything I said last time still stands. The delicate balance between music, dialogue and sound effects is maintained, with only a slight preference towards the centre channel. When a character is speaking or singing, he or she moves throughout the front three channels smoothly and accurately. Every note in the amateur singers’ spectrum is equally represented, and the elegant details of slashing steel and grinding gears are always clear, even among all the loud music. Sweeney Todd is one of only two films in Tim Burton’s catalogue that wasn’t scored by Danny Elfman (the other is Ed Wood). No one can blame Elfman for not wanting to transcribe someone else’s successful score though, and Stephen Sondheim’s additions sound rather Elfman-esque anyway. The soundtrack really shines in the rear channels, which are actually augmented with their own instruments in parts, rather than the usual echo track.
Disc one is adorned with a single featurette called ‘Burton + Depp + Cater = Todd’, which also happens to be the only extra on the single disc collection. This is a sort of meaty and not too placating behind the scenes bit that should satisfy those not thoroughly interested in extra features. More or less everything here can be found in greater detail elsewhere on disc two, so those more interested in the behind the scenes process and the historical history of Sweeney Todd might want to skip this twenty-six minute piece all together.
This brings us to a 2007 press conference featuring Burton and all the major actors. In the absence of a commentary track this interview segment gives us a decent glimpse into the deeper working process (besides, anyone that’s ever heard a Burton commentary track will know that we aren’t really missing anything). The twenty-minute feature is very amusing and far more informative than the usually press conference.
‘Sweeney is Alive’ is a twenty-minute look at the Sweeney myth and its various incarnations. The general consensus seems to be that there was no real Sweeney Todd in London’s history, and that the story is an amalgamation of various factual killers and old wives tales. The story’s popularity spiked when it was adapted into a ‘Penny Dreadful’ novella during the reign of real serial killer Jack the Ripper. The play version and an early film version are also covered here, though various B-horror versions (like Andy Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers) are not mentioned. There is a feature length documentary in here somewhere.
‘Musical Mayhem’ is a more specific look at Stephen Sondheim’s stage musical from which Burton’s film was adapted. Sondheim (the man behind West Side Story, by the way) himself is interviewed, along with various other members of the original and theatrical productions. This is a good place to pause and acknowledge the spectacular originality of a Grand Guignol horror musical. The twelve minute featurette chronicles the musical’s history, Burton’s history, and possibly most importantly, the adaptation process. I have basically zero knowledge of the original Tony winning stage version of the killer barber tale, but internet research tells us that there was a lot of adaptation required to cram three plus hours of musical into two hours of movie. From what I’m able to glean the biggest sacrifice was the relationship between Todd’s daughter and her would-be suitor, which I see as a good thing. Even as Burton and screenwriter John Logan leave it there’s a little too much of these rather bland characters.
‘Sweeney’s London’ is a look at the history of London during the start of the Sweeny Todd legend. Though Burton’s film does not take place in this particularly horrifying chapter in London’s history (actually it doesn’t take place in any real timeframe), the inclusion of this featurette is a welcome one. The narrator mixes the ‘facts’ of the fictional Todd’s life and the facts of life on the bloody and polluted streets of early nineteenth century, and period appropriate art and maps are mixed with expert commentaries. I don’t see the purpose of separating this sixteen-minute featurette from ‘Sweeney is Alive’, but it’s still a nice dash of history lesson.
‘The Making of Sweeney Todd’ starts as a total fluff piece, filled out with the usual ‘all audience’ friendly clips, and back patting interviews (“He’s amazing”, “She’s amazing”, etc.). The graphicness of the violence isn’t the only thing avoided; the musical aspects are slighted a bit, just as they were in the film’s initial trailers. This bit likely played on HBO or something between full frame movies, and includes several bits from the longer and better featurettes.
‘Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition’ is a perfectly pleasant featurette all about the uber-graphic and ever popular play style that Burton’s film and Sondheim’s stage musical reference regularly. The piece briefly covers the basic history of the violent and often amoral stage productions, Sweeney Todd’s place within the tradition, and features a few minutes of recent Grand Guignol revivals (pretty cheesy). Like the ‘Sweeney is Alive’ featurette, this one feels like a mere taste of a bigger and better documentary, only running about nineteen minutes.
‘Designs for a Demon Barber’ is a closer look at Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo’s Academy Award winning art design, the set design, and Colleen Atwood’s Academy Award nominated costume design. The featurette is told with interviews (subtitled to cover the accents), on-set footage, film footage and production artwork. There is some discussion of inspiration, but surprisingly no talk of Burton and company’s self-quotation. Bits of this nine-minute featurette can be seen in ‘The Making of Sweeney Todd’.
‘A Bloody Business’ covers the film’s many juicy gore effects. The behind the scenes footage, narrated by the effects supervisor, is pretty thorough for another nine-minute runtime, covering the whole throat chopping process. The sheer volume of fake blood and set plastic wrap (including the camera) is very amusing. This is a probably a good place to mention that my research tells me that Sweeney Todd was slightly cut for its American release.
‘Moviefone Unscripted’ is another fluff piece made to sell the film. Burton and Depp sort of interview each other while taking E-Mail questions from Moviefone web surfers. The participants are both charming as all hell, so what could’ve been a totally lame bit is only kind of awkward. It’s eleven minutes.
‘The Razor’s Refrain’ is a series of stills from the film set to pieces of each of the film’s major songs, running eight and a half minutes. This is followed by a standard flip-through gallery of behind the scenes photos and design concepts. Everything ties up with the original theatrical trailer.
When I reviewed Sweeney Todd on DVD I gave it a 7/10. I came to that choice after only one view, and a second viewing has proved even more impressive. The film really stands up, much better than I thought it would. 2007 was a very busy year, a landmark year even, and I think Tim Burton should be proud to have a film that stands up among No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Zodiac. This Blu-ray release isn’t that different from the DVD release, but the lack of compression noise and a better sense of colour makes for a better video experience, and viewers with top end sound systems will notice the improved audio.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 21st October 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English HoH, French, and Spanish
Extras: Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd, Press Conference, Sweeney is Alive, Musical Mayhem, Sweeney's London, The Making of Sweeney Todd, Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition, Designs for a Demon Barber, A Bloody Business, Moviefone Unscripted, Image Gallery, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman, Edward Sanders, Timothy Spall
Genre: Drama, Horror and Musical
Length: 116 minutes
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