Black but funny flick

People have called Tim Burton quirky, inventive, weird, and a lot of other things. I call him one sick puppy. A sick puppy who has flashes of genius, but a sick puppy nonetheless. “Edward Scissorhands,” “Beetlejuice,” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” I really enjoyed; they were black but funny and beautifully done, for the most part. But then, “The Corpse Bride” and “Nightmare before Christmas” were. . . well. . . sigh. The man needs professional help.

Johnny Depp seems to have some magnetic quality that attracts the bizarre, too. His list of credits includes a rather astonishing range of parts, many of them downright peculiar; and he and Burton have often paired up to compound their weirdnesses. Depp, however, has been pretty uniformly good in everything I’ve seen him in, even when the scripts were, shall we say, somewhat lacking . He’s a fascinating young actor and always worth watching.

So it was with a little trepidation that I agreed to see “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” on Christmas Day. “Oh, c’mon,” my friend cajoled. “It’ll be a good antidote to all that treacly Christmas crap.” Well, he’s been working at a Christmas-gift store and been force-fed Christmas music for six weeks, so I guess I could cut him some slack on that one.

The film is adapted from a stage play (more-than-musical, slightly-less-than-opera) based on what legend has is the true story of a serial killer in London in the 1800s. However, it may be that Sweeney Todd is primarily a larger-than-life urban legend, if I may be permitted a redundancy. A bit like Cut-me-own-throat (CMOT) Dibbler, whose sausages and “meat” pies are legendary for their. . . er. . . qualities.

My tolerance for on-screen blood and guts isn’t high. I think it’s a cheap trick, used to bolster bad scripts and sloppy directing. The Hitchcockian approach, which like a good artist’s suggests the lines and allows the viewer’s mind to fill in the details from his/her own fears and phobias, is much more powerful. (Hitchcock was also one sick puppy.) On the other hand, Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, who also seems to have an affinity for the bizarre, are in the movie. Tossing a coin, I figured what the hey? I could always put Kleenex in my pocket in case the blood splattered from the screen onto me.

I was surprised. Unpleasantly or pleasantly, whichever fits better in this context. In this film, Burton is spot-on and has some astonishing flashes of camera-work genius. I don’t know whether he stole it from the stage productions or not, but the use of the broken mirror is sheer unadulterated brilliance, as is the use of repeated reflections from the razor’s blade. The stylized, almost cartoon-like approach adds a great deal, too. Depp’s singing voice is a bit smooth for this gritty part, but he pulls it off well, and while I doubt that Carter could earn a living as a singer, she manages OK with this material. The vocal quality isn’t the raison d’etre for the film, anyway.

I will admit to closing my eyes a couple of times to avoid seeing too many prosthetic necks slit and too much fake blood splattering around (and it was annoying to see the spurt coming from the wrong anatomical places). The imagery would have been much more powerful had the first killing been shown in detail and subsequent ones by the flash of the razor blade or a reflection in Depp’s eyes—as I said, leaving it to the imagination makes it worse, while showing it in slaughterhouse detail numbs the viewer and actually reduces the scene’s power. But I’m sure I’m a minority voice on that issue.

The film is well worth seeing; maybe almost essential seeing. It’s definitely one of the best films I’ve seen in a few years. Don’t let the rivers of blood stop you.

Posted by wordsmith

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