Burton brings his touch of horror to bloody `Sweeney Todd'

December 26, 2007|By Terry Armour

The first time Tim Burton saw the musical Sweeney Todd, he was an art student living in London.

"The thing that kind of blew me away was just how bloody it was," Burton says. "The blood is a part of the story. I have seen other productions over the years where they tried to skimp on the blood, and those productions really seemed to lose something."

Some 20 years later, when Burton had the opportunity to craft his own big-screen version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the last thing he wanted to do was skimp on the blood.

"We decided to go over the top with it and make it more colorful," the 49-year-old filmmaker says.

Burton has succeeded. His darker, R-rated adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical -- starring Johnny Depp as the vengeful, neck-slashing barber -- is an entertainingly over-the-top film that has been nominated for a Golden Globe in the best comedy/musical category, with nods also going to Burton (best director), Depp (best actor) and Helena Bonham Carter (best actress).

But when you look closer at the story, there's nothing particularly funny about the fictional main character, a man wrongfully sent to prison by an opportunistic judge who covets Todd's wife and raises his only daughter. And sometimes lost amid the song and dance is the crux of the story: Upon this man's release from prison, he becomes a serial killer.

So Burton saw his version of Sweeney Todd as more a horror story set to music, which isn't so farfetched given the look and feel of Burton's earlier works (including Beetlejuice, Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas).

"We're not out to glorify a serial killer," he says. "But at the same time, in the tradition of those old horror movies, we wanted to show this tragic -- basically sad -- figure."

It's a portrayal embraced by Depp, who has teamed with Burton before (Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

"I could feel from our early talks the idea that there is something tragic about the guy having been dealt such a horrific blow," the actor says. "His family has essentially been stolen from him, and he's sent away for 15 years to some hellhole. The way we looked at it is that essentially the guy died. The only way his heart has continued to beat is to go and avenge that hideous wrong that has been dealt to him. That makes him, to me, a very sad character."

Terry Armour writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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