The thing that this film has left me pondering is this – why do we like to be horrified? Why do we like to spend time considering the bad things that happen in this world? It’s not just a matter of horror and gore, either. A Shakespearean tragedy or the vast majority of operas may not have buckets of blood, but we know from the moment it starts that everything’s going to go pear-shaped and that most of the main characters will end up dead.
So why on earth do we go and watch these things?
I’m still shaping my opinion on such things, and everybody will have a different answer. But I believe, first and foremost, it’s because horror is a reality check on the existence of evil. Over the last couple of decades (if not centuries), more and more, things that were considered wrong and offensive have become permissible in our society. Almost all forms of sex are acceptable. Divorce is not a big thing any more. Nobody really cares about swearing any more. With the “death of God”, a lot of things that were morally acceptable went out in society.
But all of us know, deep down, that there are rights and wrongs. There are some things that are so horrendously and obviously wrong, that they stand out in our mind like a freak of nature. And the fact that they are so blatantly wrong and horrible stirs us. It causes a reaction in us. A hundred years ago, it would have been scandalous for someone to leave their spouse. Now we wouldn’t batter an eyelid. But something like a serial killer or a cannibal – that still horrifies us and causes a strong reaction in us.
It is in this area of the strong reaction that the horror genre exists. I think most people who don’t like horror – and I can understand their reasons for not liking it – have a suspicion that people who like horror are somehow sick or like dwelling on unpleasantness. I don’t think that’s the case. The reason horror fans like their horror is because it causes a reaction. In the same way, a happy film makes the feel-good filmgoer feel all happy, in the same way the romantic comedy gives the romance-lover a mushy glow, the horror film causes a reaction in the watcher.
However, it needs to be understood, especially from a Christian point of view, that the level of horror of a particular story is really only relative to our perception of what is horrible before we go in. As I’ve said in previous posts, one of the problems I have is that the things that used to be perceived as horrible are now starting to become mainstream. For instance, when Saving Private Ryan premiered, no one had ever seen a war film that featured intestines hanging out, and limbs blown off. Steven Spielberg did this for shock value – and it worked. It was shocking.
But now this kind of thing is kind of mainstream. The most classic example is the recent 300. Here, decapitations and bloodletting are just portrayed as part of the action of war – and dwelt on so much that it’s quite clear that the filmmakers think it’s a bit of fun – and so do their audiences. If we were to watch Saving Private Ryan now, I think we’d find it a much tamer film, with a lot of its shock robbed from it.
So the only thing really left to horror filmmakers nowadays is to find new and more bizarre spins on gore, or to content themselves with the old trick that never fails – have a really quiet moment of suspense, followed by a horrific “jump” moment. Sadly, these gimmicks, while semi-effective at freaking audiences out, cannot replace what is at the heart of horror – a moral compass carried around internally by the viewer that recognises the horror of evil.
Anyway, I don’t know if that makes sense, but I think it’s important to preface why it is that viewers (and Christians are no exception) find films that deal with dark and nasty topics (like Sweeney Todd) so fascinating to watch. It’s an interesting one, because if you look at most Christian reviewers, they’re caught in a bind: as Christians, nearly all the events in this film (and other horror stories) are completely morally reprehensible, so from a moral viewpoint, there’s no good behaviour to commend in this film. And yet, they find themselves absolutely fascinated by the story. A classic example is to look at this page of reviews on ChristianAnswers.net. You’ll notice that all of the reviewers said that the film was morally offensive (if not extremely offensive) as far as content went, and yet all their reviews of the film were positive.
Are they all sick? Of course not. The story is designed to be well told and to get a response from them – while at the same time, the filmmakers would agree with the audiences that the events it portrays are morally offensive.
So while some Christians might consider this a problem, to my mind, I think it would really be horrible if we saw this film and actually thought that everything that Sweeney gets up to is perfectly acceptable. (Which is why I got far more up in arms about the recent A History of Violence, where revenge killing is portrayed as an acceptable way of handling violence.) However, that said, some people are quite happy to avoid all thoughts of things dark and horrible, and I can understand that as well. The point is the maintenance of the moral compass by the audience and the filmmaker, not of the particular events that are being portrayed.
Prologue over, I’ll briefly talk about the film. For those of you who don’t know yet, Sweeney Todd (sung by Johnny Depp) is a barber who returns from London after years abroad. He was sent away 15 years earlier by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who wanted him out of the way so that he could make a move on his wife.
Sweeney comes back to his old home, above the pie shop of Mrs Lovett (makers of “the worst pies in London”), only to find his wife killed herself years ago and his daughter (now 15) lives with the Judge as his ward. Sweeney vows revenge and pulls out his old silver razor blades with thoughts of doing more than shaves. However, after disposing of someone else in a particularly nasty way, he and Mrs Lovatt see that they might be able to help each other out. He will kill people (only those with no families or relatives to trace them) and she will grind them up to give her meat for her pies.
And did I mention that all of this is done as a musical? Stephen Sondheim’s music, which I’ve never found particularly hummable, is nonetheless very clever and certainly gives an added flair to this story than would otherwise be there. Sometimes, the music is darkly in tune with the scenes, sometimes working in opposite directions, giving it a brilliant feel of irony.
And with Burton’s trademark “darkly beautiful” look, everything looks picture-perfect and dark. In fact, almost too dark on the print I was watching, which I felt was especially dark. But then maybe it was planned that way. Certainly, the almost monochrome look of the film works brilliantly because whenever we see blood (as demonstrated in the memorable opening credits) and when the first murder occurs (and the musical and the film both string this out with a very long buildup), the red is quite striking. In fact, red and black are the colours you’ll remember most from this film. And gory as all this is, the finale takes it all to spectacular new levels.
Just in case you think it’s all mindless gore set to music, I should say that the term “musical thriller” is apt, and there is actually a very clever storyline here at the same time. We soon realise that Sweeney is far more than a distraught husband and father out to fix up his life. Revenge utterly consumes him. The young man (whose name I forget) who accompanies him to London on the boat, meets Sweeney’s daughter and spends all his screen time in the film trying to rescue her. Sweeney, meanwhile, despite knowing that she is alive, never seems to care. He just wants to kill the Judge.
And, in this story, where the only authority figures are corrupt, the only justice and retribution in this story is going to be dished out by circumstances. And so ultimately the end is satisfying (but very dark).
As my 70-something uncle (who accompanied me on this movie trip) said afterwards, “It was good music. And I liked all the blood.” I don’t think I could say much more.
4 out of 5.