Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936): or, Meat Your Maker

Well, this year's Halloween bargain DVD hunt was rather disappointing. A couple of years ago the Duke and I found that the Dollar Tree was selling these spectacular double-feature dvds, fifty cents a movie, a series of such variety and scope it was truly astounding. Through them we discovered such bounty as Vengeance of the Zombies, Castle of Blood, How Awful About Alan, and others with equally intriguing titles. We snagged as many as we could, and even though I still haven't watched all of them, they've more than paid for themselves already in the pleasure gleaned.

Last year it was the same series again, nothing we didn't already have, and this year it was worse--four discs of previously released stuff, but with horrible cartoonish cover art replacing the movie posters of the other series. Disappointing.

Luckily, however, I did manage to find one double-feature dvd for the still-modest price of $1.99 at our local Walgreens containing an unknown-to-me feature called Bloodlust (expect a future review) and also a film I'd wanted to see for years but hadn't been able to find--the 1936 British production of Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

I've been a fan of this story ever since the early-to-mid-eighties, when I caught a performance of the Stephen Sondheim musical on our local PBS station one weekend. Though I had some experience with musicals (my older brother's a big fan, and I picked a lot up by osmosis), I had never before seen one that so perfectly blended show tunes and terror. In the fullness of time I acquired a tape and watched the play over and over again, until I could quite literally recite it from opening curtain to final bow.

So when I learned that there had been a horror film made of the story--and during the Golden Age of Classic Horror, my favorite era, no less!--I became very much interested in seeing it. Sadly the film was not a Universal production, nor a Hollywood flick at all, but rather a low-budget British programmer that never showed up on our late-night TV dial. I filed it away in the back cabinet of my brain and went on with my life.

So now I've finally got to see it, and I must say I'm not at all disappointed. A fun, theatrical little flick with some good acting from the leads, some interesting editing, at least one WTF wacky moment, and a long-overdue introduction to the work of Tod Slaughter, an English thespian who apparently made lots of films like these and whose other work I look forward to seeing. But, on with the synopsis.

We open in modern-day London, scene of our interesting frame story. A busy businessman stops in a small barber shop for a shave. The barber--a cadaverous fellow with a cloyingly unguent manner--sets about trying to sell his client all manner of tonsorial accessories, from razor blades to hair tonics to vigor-restoring snake oil. The irritated customer swats away every offer, saying at last, "I expect you'll try to sell me that picture on the wall next!"

"Oh no," the barber says, seriously. "I would never sell that!" It turns out the picture is a drawing of Sweeney Todd from the newspapers in the early 19th Century, and Mr. Todd was the original owner of the shop. This leads the barber to tell the man Todd's story while he shaves him, and takes us into the wayback machine set for Dickensian London...


"Say, want me to show you a
quick way to lose ten ugly pounds?"

Now, in case you don't know, Sweeney Todd is a barber who lives and works somewhere in the vicinity of Fleet Street, London. He's also something of a tinkerer and a thief, not to mention a murderous psychopath. The fortunate man has been able to roll all his predilictions into one pastime--having rigged up a trap door underneath his barber's chair, he's able to drop unsuspecting customers into the basement on their heads, go down and slit their throats, and then steal all their cash.

This of course leaves the problem of what to do with the victims' remains, but the fiendishly clever Todd has this sorted as well. A secret passage through the basement connects with his next door neighbor Mrs. Lovat's shop, which as it happens sells meat pies. Mrs. Lovat is not averse to spiking the pies with shaved human corpses, and what's more, she's in love with Todd. Problem solved!

This hobby has made Todd very wealthy, but he longs to gain entry into society, and to do this is courting aristocrat Stephen Oakley, claiming he wants to be allowed to invest in his shipping business, but actually hoping to get the old man in his debt so he can force him to allow Todd to marry young Joanna Oakley, the aristocrat's daughter. (This is very different from the Sondheim musical and presumably the upcoming Burton/Depp vehicle based on it, since in the play Joanna is Todd's daughter and she is pursued by the lecherous Judge Turpin, whose character here is aptly named 'Judge Not-Appearing-In-This-Film.')

But Joanna has a man, a sailor named Mark, of whom her father disapproves. Mark is about the ship out, hoping to make his fortune and come back for Joanna's hand. But Todd helps the old man out by ratting on Joanna and the sailor and spoiling their farewell at the pier, thus gaining his good graces. Hands are shaken, investments are made, investments are lost, Todd calls in his debts, Oakley offers up his daughter, virgins are menaced, throats are slit, and everything rolls right along.

I must say here that the period setting of Victorian England is done extremely well--the crowded piers, the coal-smokey streets, the urchins and scullery maids, all great. And Todd and the other gentlemen wear some truly amazing top hats--I mean Mad Hatter-type hats, stuff that would make Tom Petty proud. The exaggerated height and width of the chapeaux give the film an almost German expressionist quality, without going too overboard on it.

Mrs. Lovat doesn't like Todd's carrying on with Joanna, and threatens to send him to jail; but of course she's in it as deep as he is, as he reminds her. Here Slaughter really turns up the low simmering menace he's cultivated the whole flick and goes into full-on threatening madman mode, also demonstrating probably the second-best crazy-laugh in cinema history. (Top honor: Dwight Frye as Renfield, natch.) It reminded me of a chain of stores that used to do business in Arkansas and perhaps throughout the South known as "The Mad Butcher"--they had this very Todd-ish looking mascot who closed every commercial with a crazy laugh, brandishing a cleaver. I wonder now if this figure was based on Slaughter in this film. Or if I just dreamed him up. Either way, *shudder*.


Tod Slaughter: the Very Picture
of Trustworthiness

Meanwhile, Mark's ship lands in Africa somewhere to rescue an English shipwreck victim whose fires they saw from sea. This is a wild and wacky scene, as the Robinson Crusoe-esque shipwrecked dude and his heavily-pigmented servant (unnamed, but I call him 'Monday') are beset by a tribe of Jungle warriors intent on stamping out the White Menace. The sailors come ashore and before you can say Zulu there's an all-out race riot afoot! The natives are at a disadvantage without gunpowder and are quickly mowed down, but not before Monday buggers off (Don't you just hate Mondays?) and leaves Crusoe to rush out of the hut to greet his liberators, only to get a chest full of spears in mid-huzzah! That'll teach you to count your chickens.

The captain is a casualty of the fray, so Mark becomes captian and sails back to London, his fortune made thanks to the his bloody promotion. It all goes downhill rather quickly from there, with Lovat finally going sour on Todd, Joanna dressing as a boy to infiltrate Tod's shop (convincing Sweeney utterly--a nice Shakespearean touch there), the whole carnal business getting uncovered, and a final confrontation that leads to the shop going up in flames and Todd presumably dying in the cataclysm. Of course we get a comedic return to the modern-day to see the barber's customer flee the shop once the cadaverous cutter picks up his razor, and thus a legend is born.

"It's the weirdest thing...I swear you look
just like somebody I know! Ah well, never mind.
How much for the wax job again? "


This was a very fun flick, especially for fans of horror films from this period. I've read that if a Victorian melodrama could be brought to the screen, acting styles intact, Slaughter's work wouldn't be far off, and I believe it. Slaughter--called "Europe's Horror Man" in the ads--is a really great villain, his menacing evil nature very authentic and palpable. Though the acting style here is more stage than screen, it still works, especially when Slaughter lets loose with the crazy laugh.

Also, especially early on in the flick there is some interesting editing, as director George King ties together several scenes stream-of-consciousness style, taking the last word from one character as the first word from another on a jump cut to a different set-up. There's some comic relief with one of Mark's shipmates being courted by Joanna's tall, gawky maid, which surprisingly is actually pretty funny. There's no gore, of course, and the cannibalism aspect of the story is very much played down (restricted to implication in one or two scenes with people saying, "Whattaya suppose he did with the bodies?" while of course chewing one of Mrs. Lovat's meat pies), but like I say, if you're a fan of movies of this period, there's very little not to like.

I'm glad I got to see ST:TDBoFS, and that it wasn't a crushing disappointment like another long-sought-after movie I finally got to see as an adult. I give it a solid 2 thumbs. Fans of Lugosi, Karloff, and the Universal Horrors, get to know Tod Slaughter. He'll fit right into your pantheon.

2 comments:

CG said...

I've heard about this. Been wanting to see it. Now I'll definitely have to hunt it down.

Jo said...

You've got a great blog here. :)

I really need to see Sweeney Todd now, I'm on the hunt.

In general, I just need to find more bargain bins with horror titles. :)

Nice to blog meet you.

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