From the moment those first doomy organ chords shake the theatre, it's clear that Sweeney Todd is no ordinary movie musical. Tim Burton's film, his best for a good while, is an eye-popping feast of gore underscored with disturbing, dissonant ballads. It opens with a rain of blood and ends with a subterranean slaughter that would make Freddy Krueger wince. It's a grimy concoction from Hell's own kitchen, laced with black humour and seasoned with hauntingly beautiful music. Tuck in.
Stephen Sondheim's landmark musical about the homicidal hairdresser and his cannibalistic girlfriend is a tough proposition for movie directors. The score is fearsomely difficult, even for trained opera singers, and the subject matter will test the sternest stomach. Burton has given himself an additional hurdle by replacing the grotesque fiftysomethings that populate the stage version with younger, prettier stars. In casting terms, Sondheim's masterpiece has been thoroughly Burtonised: Sweeney (Johnny Depp) and his partner in slime Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) look almost exactly as they did as puppets in Corpse Bride: anorexic chic poster children. And then there's the singing. Depp has a nice, croaky voice (he sounds a bit like mid-period Bowie) but he lacks the simmering bass-baritone power that would give his hymns to vengeance some weight. Bonham-Carter's voice is even gentler: their duets sound like a clarinet duelling with a piccolo, when what you want is an almighty scrap between cellos and a brass band.
"DRENCHED IN BLOOD"
Cleverly, Burton has dialled the whole film down to his stars' intimate level, so Sweeney the grand revenger becomes Sweeney the whispering psychopath, while Mrs Lovett appears as weary and washed out as a pair of old y-fronts. It's a fascinating interpretation that pumps up the psychological realism, although it takes a lot of fizz out of the songs. Supporting players are good, especially Alan Rickman's predatory judge, and there's a nice cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen as a preening barber who comes to a sticky end. Finally, Sweeney Todd is much like one of Mrs Lovett's meat pies: satisfying, drenched in blood and full of surprises.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is out in the UK on 25th January 2008.