Sweeney Todd (1998)

D: John Schlesinger
S: Ben Kingsley, Joanna Lumley, Campbell Scott

Irish made version of the classic urban horror tale (co-produced by Morgan O'Sullivan) featuring Ben Kingsley as the title character, an Old London barber who made his fortune by murdering some of his clients, stealing their belongings and grinding their bodies into meat pies. When an American investigator (Campbell) arrives in search of diamonds being carried by one of Todd's victims, the public is set to learn the terrible truth about what they've been eating. Things also get complicated when he falls for Todd's young female ward, which threatens his adversary on more than one level.

Not uninteresting but undistinguished horror fare from an unusual source most notable for its plethora of Irish actors in supporting roles and for its Costume Design by Joan Bergin and Art Direction by Stephen Simmons. Kingsley is effective in the title role, aided by a nicely repulsive performance from Joanna Lumley as the pie-maker partner in crime. Scott is low-key but workable as the would-be hero.

As horror, the film is marred by a lack of genuine terror and an abrupt ending. It conceals the details of the crime until late in the narrative, which is somewhat pointless given the familiarity of the character to general audiences. There is not much suspense, and though there is plenty of atmosphere, it is mostly concerned with a representation of the sleazy London in which the tale is set. Images of meat and butchery abound, much of it repulsive. Disgust, while often essential to horror, is not enough on its own though. Taken as drama, there is less to note, for while it does attempt to explain Todd's actions and throws in one or two jabs at urban life, there is nothing particularly new or interesting. Scott makes a largely unsympathetic hero. His hard-edged mercenary character does not really work as an everyman for the audience to empathise with, and though the forces ranged against him are nasty, they never seem particularly threatening to him. When the final confrontation comes, there is never any doubt as to the outcome, but little emotion involved in seeing it happen.

It does have a nice, sub-gothic look in places and creates and sustains an authentic period atmosphere. There is even some sense of the social dynamics of the community in which the story is set. This is not social drama though, and even in the best horror films, these factors serve the more generic concern with the darker side of human behaviour and its hidden fears. Here, Sweeney Todd offers a sometimes cerebral meditation on cannibalism and on the affinity between human cruelty on a vast scale (the constant references to war and its affects), and the more up close and personal nastiness which is at the heart of the events portrayed. This is not without its point, but when the film goes for more traditional scares it lacks the hold over the audience necessary to keep them receptive to what it has to say.

More of a curiosity piece than anything else, but worth a look for the late-night horror fan as a warm up to something more substantial (dare we say 'meaty'?), Sweeney Todd might develop a cult following given sufficient time, but it is certainly not among the first rank of horror films even of recent years.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.