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February 07, 2008

Sweeney Todd: Not as Delicious as I'd Hoped...

Every year for my birthday, my mother makes me a tourtière. Never heard of such a thing? It's a French-Canadian meat pie. I think Mom's version is made with ground pork and just a touch of tomato, and is baked in a buttery pie crust. It's savory, filling and delicious.

Perhaps it was my penchant for meat pies that made me so fascinated by the story of Sweeney Todd, which I discovered as an undergrad while working on a paper about cannibalism in film (think Ravenous, movies about Hannibal Lecter and campy offerings such as Eating Raoul, Bob Balaban's Parents, and Matt Parker and Trey Stone's weird and catchy Cannibal the Musical).

Supposedly based on a real person, although historical evidence is slim to non-existent, the version of the story that was made into a Sondheim musical recently adapted into film by Tim Burton, tells the tragic tale of a barber who is unjustly imprisoned after a powerful judge takes a liking to his wife. Upon his return to London, he finds that his wife is dead by her own hand and his daughter is the evil judge's ward. However his old landlady, Mrs. Lovett, is on Fleet Street right where he left her, churning out the city's most disgusting "meat" pies using god-knows-what as filling. Good meat was expensive and hard to come by in those days. And cats are very quick.

Todd takes up residence above Lovett's shop, and unleashes his anguish upon the unshaven men of London: Put it this way, when Todd suggests a close shave, he's not offering his clients fuzz-free cheeks. The bodies tumble down a chute into the basement, where Mrs. Lovett grinds up 'em up and pops 'em into pies, a move which seriously improves the quality of her wares.

Enough plot summary, though...While the movie gave me pleasant chills a few times, I just didn't feel any connection to the characters. Thus, any concern I had for the ongoing well-being of Sweeney or Mrs. Lovett was intellectual, not emotional. It's easy to make me cry, so if a movie doesn't, well, that's saying something. But I still found it enjoyable, just not great. My favorite parts? A couple ditties about meat pies, of course. Here are some excerpts:

Before: From "The Worst Pies in London"

...These are probably the worst pies in London.
I know why nobody cares to take them!
I should know!
I make them!
But good? No...
The worst pies in London...
Even that's polite! The worst pies in London!
If you doubt it take a bite! ...

...Is that just, disgusting?
You have to concede it!
It's nothing but crusting!
Here drink this, you'll need it.
The worst pies in London
And no wonder with the price of meat
what it is
when you get it...

After: From "God, That's Good"

...Are your nostrils aquiver and tingling as well
At that delicate, luscious ambrosial smell?
Yes they are, I can tell.
Well, ladies and gentlemen,
That aroma enriching the breeze
Is like nothing compared to its succulent source,
As the gourmets among you will tell you, of course...

What's my secret?
(To a woman)
Frankly, dear — forgive my candor —
Family secret,
All to do with herbs.
Things like being
Careful with your coriander,
That's what makes the gravy grander — !

I'd say watch it on DVD, if you're so inclined.


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