Thursday, October 6, 2011

Horror Out of its Element: Musical

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is just one of many examples of the Horror genre delivered in the ironic medium of “the musical.” One may think of films like “Little Shop of Horrors” or “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for other examples. These efforts use the expectations of the musical to make the horror all the more intense and… horrifying. It may be bad enough to have a story about murder and cannibalism; but what if the characters were singing and dancing their way through the piece?

Unfortunately, in the case of Sweeney Todd, there seems to be no good reason for the story to be told. The idea behind the piece is one of the oldest: “revenge for injustices”, but predictably this motive is as unfulfilling for the main character as it is for the viewer. As the madness increases and the killings mount the copious amounts of blood being spilt are supposed to be symbolic of cathartic release of emotion. They aren’t though, it is just comical and Todd is not demonstrating any sort of appeasement.

One could even forgive the piece as a bit of fun entertainment but there is a sad lack of fun to be had. The story does try to be funny at times, and succeeds early on with the “shave-off” but all the jokes after that fall flat. As things progress there is a noticeable lack of levity. One must conclude that the whole point of this story is to shock.

What does that say about the culture of the past decade? The sheer volume of stories being told designed to do no more than shock; and the appeal and success that such stories have inducing studios to return to them again and again is troubling. (Apparently the “Saw” franchise of films is the most successful horror series of all time.) This is not the first time such stories have had a great appeal, but all of the others came at dark points in history. A post-911 world facing the duel threats of a global war and economic crisis may not feel as terrible to our daily reality as we imagine it should; especially in comparison to some of the dark times of the past 200 years. Apparently it does to the collective subconscious.

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