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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Revenge Served Cold, With a Soothing Lather

Twenty-three years after his blood-soaked debut as one of Freddy Kruegerís first victims, Johnny Depp has come full-circle as a gentle barber turned diabolical serial killer. His pale, bloodless face twisted into a vicious scowl, his hair as wildly unkempt as Edward Scissorhands' but with a brilliant white streak, he gracefully navigates the darkest corners of London like a ghost, a man consumed by his obsessive and mostly joyless quest for vengeance.

Faithfully adapted from Stephen Sondheimís 1979 musical, Tim Burtonís Sweeney Todd is pleasantly perverse and visually arresting, a bold slice of Grand Guignol that embraces the macabre without trying to drown us in oceans of blood. In many ways it is no different than Burtonís darkest animated fantasies -- A Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride -- brought vividly to life. Here, London is less a backdrop than a supporting player whose presence is inescapable, its decaying buildings caked in soot, its skies awash with thick clouds of dark smoke. It is a sinister vision in gloom.

Not that Todd would see it otherwise. Born Benjamin Barker, he makes no secret of his disdain for the city where he once made his home with his beautiful wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) and infant child, before being wrongly imprisoned. By the time he returns, driven by a furious need to punish the reptilian judge who stole his freedom and his life, he is a changed man, not just in name but in temperament. He is cold, unforgiving and hungry for blood, regardless of the source.

In Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) he finds something close to a kindred spirit. A widowed baker who dreams of filling the loveless void in Toddís life, she gleefully assists him, grinding his pounds of exacted flesh into meat pies and selling them to the unsuspecting public. Itís a ghoulish plan, perfectly fitting in the twisted world of Sweeney Todd, but it does nothing to satisfy its anti-heroís bloodlust, which is teased to the boiling point by an early, ill-fated encounter with Judge Turpin.

Alan Rickman, who guaranteed himself a lifetime of villainous turns after starring as a black-hearted terrorist in Die Hard, infuses Turpin with an almost palpable menace, providing Todd with a worthy foil. But the movie belongs to Depp and Bonham Carter, who dance slowly and seductively against the backdrop of Burtonís London until itís time to paint the town red.

While their singing may fall short of Broadway standards -- Depp is more passionate than tuneful, while Bonham Carterís vocals seem thinner than her pies -- both inhabit their roles with exuberance, making their resounding refrain (ďThey all deserve to die!Ē) a chilling threat and a liberating call to arms. Deppís morbidly pale visage and tonsorial artistry are sure to invite comparisons with Scissorhands, his character in an earlier Burton production, but there is one major difference: Edward Scissorhands spends his life learning how not to hurt people, while Sweeney Todd canít wait to start.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars