Sweeney Todd: Music to Our Fears

Sweeney Todd: Music to Our Fears

By Joe Nazare


I went to see a musical, and a slasher movie broke out.

Director Tim Burton’s late-2007 feature Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street waited nearly fifty minutes to launch its surprise at me. Committing his first murder, the title character Todd (played brilliantly by Johnny Depp) dispatches his would-be blackmailer, “Adolfo Pirelli.” The flamboyant Pirelli has turned out to be a mere persona utilized by London mountebank Davey Collin, who sees past Todd’s own assumed identity and names him as Benjamin Barker (exiled from England fifteen years earlier on a false charge, so the covetous Judge Turpin could then pursue Barker’s beautiful wife Lucy). When Collin seeks half of Todd’s earnings as the price of silence, Todd instead gives him a furious bludgeoning with a boiling teakettle. Upon realizing shortly thereafter that Collin’s trunk-stuffed body still has some life left in it, Todd delivers a more assured death-stroke. He methodically slits Collin’s throat, an act of brutality from which neither Todd’s razor-grasping hand nor Burton’s camera flinches. The film bares its savage claws at this moment, marking itself as a much different beast than campy horror-musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors, and more truly romantic film versions of Broadway Gothics like The Phantom of the Opera.

I don’t want to make it sound like I walked into the movie theater expecting the feel-good hit of the season. After all, Burton/Depp collaborations have always tended toward the macabre, and their 1999 film Sleepy Hollow had presented some scenes of jarring gruesomeness as characters lost their heads to the Horseman’s sword. Moreover, the MPAA had forewarned me that Sweeney Todd was rated R for (cue the cockney accent) “Graphic Bloody Violence.” And even though I had never seen the Stephen Sondheim musical upon which the film is based, I still knew the basic story of Sweeney Todd–that notoriously sanguinary barber who precluded return business by shaving customers much too closely, and who then gave the bodies to his partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett (embodied by Helena Bonham Carter in the film) to bake into meat pies. So by no means did I take my seat that night unprepared for some grotesquerie; still, I had no idea just how much blood Sweeney Todd was determined to spill.

“You will learn,” Todd gravely intones (seeking to disillusion his sailing companion Anthony about London) at the start of the film. And that I did. I learned that the artful Burton has crafted a movie as dark and splatter-filled as anything found in more overt slasher cinema. More importantly, I learned that this unique genre hybrid doesn’t just happen to mix the lyrical with the lethal, but rather employs its musical aspects to help orchestrate its very horrors.

Sweeney Todd qualifies as a slasher film in the purest sense that it features a blade-wielding psychopath who gashes the throats of a series of unsuspecting victims. Yet the film also contains many other thematic and iconic echoes of slasher movies. Like hotel manager and ur-slasher Norman Bates, Todd uses his place of business to attract victims (the film further alludes to Psycho in the scenes where the sexual predator Turpin–Todd’s double by virtue of having displaced him from his family–spies through a a secret peephole into the bedroom of his ward/prisoner Johanna). Todd’s return to tonsorial activities after a fifteen-year hiatus is facilitated by his rediscovery of his set of shaving blades in his old parlor upstairs from Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. Todd proceeds to sing an ode to his “friends,” promising his razors that they will soon “drip precious rubies.” Meantime Mrs. Lovett sings of her own fondness for Barker/Todd, but the ostensible duet is marked by disconnect: preoccupied by serenading his prospective murder weapons, Todd apparently doesn’t even hear Mrs. Lovett. Like the classic slasher figure, Todd desires violence rather than sex, and takes pleasure in handling his phallic tools. As the scene concludes, Todd dismisses Mrs. Lovett so he can be alone with his straight razors. He draws himself erect and–with a long blade extending Freddy-Krueger-style from his finger–exults, “At last, my arm is complete again.”

Todd’s vengeance won’t be complete until he slits the jugular of Judge Turpin, and that moment seems at hand the first time Todd’s nemesis seats himself in the barber’s chair. Soon Todd has Turpin joining him in rhapsodizing about “Pretty Women,” the song serving to distract the judge from his impending fate much the same way it seduces the audience with its melodic charms. Yet the scene nonetheless begets anxiousness, as Todd’s drawn-out notes work in tandem with close-ups of the blade slowly scraping up Turpin’s outstretched neck. Not that we don’t welcome the idea of the odious judge receiving his comeuppance, but having already seen what Todd did to Davey Collin, we no doubt feel a need to brace ourselves for a sudden gory outpouring. The song, though, ultimately sounds a false alarm (one of the most time-honored tricks in horror’s repertoire): Todd’s lyrics build to a growling crescendo as he prepares to execute the killing swipe, but then Anthony barges into the shop, blurting out his intention to elope with Johanna. The untimely interruption chases Turpin from the chair, vowing to keep Johanna (the fifteen-year-old daughter of Benjamin and Lucy Barker) locked away from the embraces of all other men.

Neither the judge nor the audience, though, ultimately gets off easy. Turpin is later slaughtered following a second chair-bound round of “Pretty Women.” Before reaching that point, we witness several grisly throat-slashings–many of them in montage sequence. The presentation of these blood-geysering demises once more exemplifies how Burton’s film uses music to achieve its horrific effects. The scene cuts back and forth between Anthony (walking the streets) and Todd (working in his shop) singing about Johanna. While Anthony heroically aspires to rescue Johanna, Todd (despairing of ever reuniting with his long-lost daughter) devolves from antihero to villain–a misanthropic madman who, unhinged by his grade-Ahab monomania for revenge, no longer distinguishes between deserving victims and innocent customers. The starkest contrast, though, results from the gross disparity between word and deed: “Johanna” represents the most elegant of the film’s many songs, but Todd repeatedly undercuts the grandeur of his own lyrics with sudden, vicious swipes of his razor. His devious assault reaches out into the audience, striking us with the awful discord between the pleasant music falling upon our ears and the atrocity simultaneously transpiring before our eyes.

Sweeney Todd revels in duality and incongruity, in deadly duplicity. Mrs. Lovett croons to her young assistant Toby (who suspects Todd of murder) that she won’t let anyone harm him, then promptly leads him downstairs and locks him inside her infernal basement “bake house” so she can fetch Todd to deal with him (note, too, how this climactic bake-house setting forms a prime instance of the “Terrible Tunnel” topos Carol Clover traces [e.g., The Texas Chainsaw Massacre IIHell Night] in her study Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Similarly, Todd disguises his murderous intentions for Mrs. Lovett after learning that she misled him about Lucy poisoning herself to death (Lucy has ended up slain by Todd’s own hand when he fails to recognize a haggish madwoman as his formerly beautiful wife). Todd sweeps Mrs. Lovett up into a waltz, sings of forgiving and forgetting and of moving on and living life together, then turns around and tosses her in the giant bake oven. Mrs. Lovett perhaps receives her just desserts for running her pie shop of filthy creation, but she also adds to the long list of slasher-movie females who pay dearly for their sexual urges (in Mrs. Lovett’s case, her persistent desire to wed and bed Todd).

Just when the carnage seems completed, Toby emerges from his hiding spot and avenges the death of his surrogate mother. His killing of Todd, however, doesn’t provide neat moral wrap-up to this Victorian revenge tragedy; if anything, it evokes the ominous open-endedness of many slasher movies. We watch Toby–whose eyes, significantly, are now as shadow-ringed as Todd’s have been throughout–pick up Todd’s razor and slit his throat with it. Toby forms a portrait of a demonic barber as a young man, and thus forces us to consider the likeliness of his growing up to become the next “Mr. T.” (as Mrs. Lovett dubbed Todd). With razor still in hand, Toby stalks off-screen, and we are left with the image of Todd’s spilt blood symbolically spreading toward the edge of the frame. Only then does the scene fade to black on Burton’s sly, subversive masterpiece.

In January 2008, I went to see a musical, and a slasher movie broke out. I could not have been more positively horrified.