In adapting Stephen Sondheim's dissonant musical into a splatter operetta, Burton delivers a movie that might well be too arty for the blood crowd and too bloody for the art crowd.
Yet, as with all Burton films, Sweeney is atmospheric and haunting, like a William Blake engraving with Dolby Digital sound. It seeps into your bones like fog.
It's tempting to view Sweeney as Burton's song of experience, bookend to his song of innocence, Edward Scissorhands.
With Edward, Burton and Depp made a story about a love-hungry boy who couldn't get close to people without hurting them with his blades-for-fingers. Sweeney is the obverse, a tale of a hate-sated man who gets close to people in order to kill them. Sweeney's loathing for one man, Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, sepulchral as he is sensational), feeds his loathing for all men.
A white forelock skunking his black mane, Depp's Sweeney resembles the spawn of Susan Sontag and Beethoven. As Sweeney, he sings in an aggrieved, David Bowieish baritone. Not a whit of humor bubbles under Sweeney's black-tar eyes. In Depp's Gothic gallery of grotesques, Sweeney's is his most cheerless portrait, especially when he bellows, voice brimming with contempt, how full he is with joy.
It's the past Sweeney remembers in rosy colors. The present is lived in monochrome relieved only by the occasional burst of blood.
Like its central character, Sweeney's London is etched in smudgy shades of black and white, courtesy of Dante Ferretti's striking production design and Dariusz Wolski's cinematography, which makes the movie as theatrically stylized as its stage versions.
Separated from his wife and daughter by Turpin, Sweeney sings the most macabre love song in the Sondheim canon, "My Friends" - to his razors. "Now my arm is complete!" Sweeney declares, wriggling blades as if they were fingers.
Sweeney enters in professional partnership with a mournful piewoman, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, looking like Depp, only with cleavage), who abets his barbery and dreams of becoming his bride.
In what Burton frames as a lethal love triangle, Mrs. Lovett loves Sweeney; Sweeney loves razors; his razors love Londoners, slit and ground into filling for Mrs. Lovett's meat pies.
Sondheim's morbidly playful lyrics - "Shepherd's pie peppered with actual shepherd!" - do not succeed in lightening the unrelieved darkness of Burton's bleak vision.
His movie is a wonder to behold, but only those with Burton's acquired tastes would want to sample a pie overstuffed with such joylessness.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Tim Burton, written by John Logan, adapted from the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. With Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen and Timothy Spall. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 mins.
Parent's guide: R (blood, gore, sexual candor)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/.